“I hated my life as I grew. But now I realise my life has a meaning to it,” said Usha Chaumar, 40, about her transition from a manual scavenger to the President of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, leading the fight for sanitation.

Usha Chaumar from Alwar in Rajasthan has been conferred with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India, for ‘social work’ this year.

“I never expected such a big recognition. I have been working on sanitation and spreading awareness for past many years since I left manual scavenging early last decade and was shaped up into a skilled worker by Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, a noted sociologist and founder of Sulabh International. The Government of India’s award gives me fresh energy and increases my responsibility,” Usha told The Statesman in an interview over phone.

Usha inspires many. She calls her journey to empowerment as ‘second life’ and attributes it to Dr Pathak.

“When I was child I was told that I was born to be a manual scavenger. I had to learn it from my mother at the age of seven years as she would take me along when she went out to carry ‘night soil’. I always wanted to run away from the dirty work as I grew. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like having my daily meal after coming back from work,” she said.

Usha said her marriage at the age of 10 years made no difference to her life as she had to do the same work. “The only difference was that earlier I used to go out for this with my mother and after marriage, with my mother-in-law with a veil.”

Usha said she was given Rs 10 a month by each member of the family she served as manual scavenger. “It was a hellish experience with lot of stigma.”

Things turned around for her 17 years back when Dr Pathak came to her village and saw Usha and others doing manual scavenging.

“He offered us an alternative of making things like papads and pickles. Illiterate and unaware, we could not answer his questions. We were hesitant and apprehensive as were considered untouchables and though nobody would buy things made by us. But Dr Pathak convinced us and we joined an organisation called ‘Nai Disha’ that brought the new dawn for us,” she explained.

“We all got basic education. ‘Nai Disha’ built our capacity and we started getting Rs 1500 a month for the work and beat the stigma too with consistent hard work.”

But the transition was not so easy. Initially, Sulabh International purchased all the products made by the women at ‘Nai Disha’. With time, the products got acceptability in market and people started mingling with them at social gatherings too.

Individually for Usha, it turned out to be a golden opportunity to learn and grow, as she always wanted to live a respectable life.

“There was no looking back for me. I developed my public speech and started creating awareness on sanitation. I speak freely at international platforms as well. None should do the work that I had to do in my youth.” she said.

It is pertinent to mention that Usha is also the producer of 66th National Award winning film ‘Madhubani- The Station of Colours’ and is currently working on a film on water conservation.