Having seen their parents trapped in the gutter, these children of manual scavengers are counting on education to change their destinies

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Vimal Kumar remembers school days not by the subjects that were taught in class, but what his mother was doing at the time. As the day progressed, Kumar would watch from the class window as she swept the school grounds, the classrooms, and lifted night soil from the toilets. After school, when others ran home, he would stay back to lend her a hand. Even 30 years later, the taunt of ‘jamadarni ka beta’ hurts.

Kumar’s family lived in Valmiki basti in Haryana’s Ladwa town in Kurukshetra district, 150 km from Delhi, where no one went to school except for Kumar. “The men worked at the grain stores in the mandi (wholesale market) and the women would clean the school and homes of the upper castes. As children we had to help out,” Kumar recalls. Swallowing his hatred for school was a little more bearable than the thought of lifting dirt. So Kumar chose to study even as he spent afternoons helping his parents. It was not easy going though. He recalls failing class 7 and 8 twice. “The teacher called my father and insulted him. It hurt my pride so much that I decided after that I would take my academics seriously. I would not give them another chance to laugh at my father,” says Kumar, who is currently based in Washington DC as part of an academic fellowship.

Kumar went on not just to complete school but a masters in social work and is working on a PhD now. Like Kumar, 41-yearold Kaushal Panwar, who lifted night soil with her grandmother till she completed her MA, faced taunts not just from students but also teachers. “But my father’s words would ring in my ears. You have to study and work hard no matter what the taunts,” says Panwar, who grew up in Haryana village of Rajound in Kaithal district. Her father was a daily wager and scavenger, and was determined that his children would not do the same work. In class seven, she took up Sanskrit as a subject even though it rankled the upper caste teachers. Today, she’s a Sanskrit professor at Motilal Nehru college after having done a PhD from JNU.

Despite a ban on manual scavenging, there are over 56,000 working in the field, according to government data for 2019. The International Dalit Solidarity network pegs it at 1.3 million. Jan Sahas founder Ashif Sheikh, who has been working with manual scavengers since 2000, says that awareness in the Dalit community has to increase. “People must understand it is not about rozgaar (employment) but about gulaami (slavery),” he says.

Former scavengers like Kumar are keen to help others claw their way out of the gutter. In 2009, he started a non-profit called Movement for Scavenger Community, which set up resource centres in five cities. “The atmosphere in any Valmiki basti is of alcoholism, drugs and violence. I wanted to create a safe place for children where they could study after school, learn computers, or just receive information on how to get out of the rut,” he says. Ladwa village resident Sagar says that inspired by Vimal Kumar, many young children turned their attention to books. He was one of them. The 27-yearold is in his first year of graduation and is running a fishery business. “Getting loans for business is difficult. They hear your caste and then turn down the loan,” says Sagar (who uses only one name). After several unsuccessful stints at entrepreneurship, Sagar seems to have finally found some stability. “I am still running in losses and have a huge loan to pay but I have to persist. Going back to becoming a safai karamchari is not an option,” he says.

Ladwa’s Vimal Kumar says he draws inspiration from a cartoon he loved watching when he was young. “He-Man would raise his arms and say, ‘I have the power.’ I believe I too have the power to change my destiny,” he says.