Dressed in a blue salwar kameez, an immaculately turned out Usha Chaumar walks into the room in her office in Delhi. She seems a little nervous, but is quick to make pleasantries. She rues that the meeting could not take place in her home town Alwar, in Rajasthan where she would have loved to show us around. Such niceties are now second nature to Chaumar. She has just returned from Marseille, France after delivering an address at the World Water Summit, where she spoke extempore on the need to maintain menstrual hygiene. A few days ago, she shared the dais with the President of India, Pratibha Patil on the occasion of the Nirmal Gram Puraskar for total sanitation in villages. The prime minister of Sweden, the princes of Belgium and The Netherlands have called on her as have several ambassadors to congratulate her on the good work that she has been doing.
A decade ago, there was no scope for such pleasantries, or accolades, in her life. Her existence was defined by an occupation, which even after being declared illegal, continues to persist and paints one of the most unedifying pictures of 21st century life in this country: manual scavenging. "I have known only this occupation for as long as I can remember. After marriage, I used to accompany my mother-in-law," says Chaumar, who was married at 10 and had never been to school. It was a routine that began at 5am when she and 100 other women would clean the fecal remains of 300 houses in Alwar town for a paltry sum of Rs 300 a month, with only brooms and pails. "I had come to believe that this was our fate. I wanted to study, wanted to be just like everyone else, have a normal life, mingle with others and partake in the small pleasures," says Chaumar, 36.