Radhna Inayatpur, Meerut: For a 35-year-old young woman, Rekha’s expectations from life are simple, if not utterly meagre. She does not wish to dress up, look pretty or own a big house or car. The only thing she wants is that there should be enough to go around so her seven children can have two meals a day.

Any kind of meal will do. “Even if we don’t have sabzi (vegetables), at least my children and I should have roti or something to fill our stomachs every day," she says.

Rekha is a manual scavenger or a night soil carrier—words cleansed of the stench surrounding this profession. These men and women physically remove excreta from dry latrines—those without a flush—across the country. According to the latest Socio-Economic Caste Census data, 180,657 households are still engaged in this degrading work, even though manual scavenging itself has been outlawed in India since 1993.

Now, its actual eradication is one of the key aims of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the government’s flagship health and sanitation program.

Rekha’s job doesn’t pay her on a daily basis. After the death of her husband two years ago, she became the sole earner in the family. That’s how things remained until recently when her teenage daughter joined her. Together they scoop human excreta from open-pit or dry latrines in Radhana Inayatpur village of Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh—the state that is home to the largest number of manual scavengers and open-pit toilets.

The village is located just around 75 km from the national capital but it’s as if the miracle of India’s high-growth economy just passed by Rekha.

Rekha uses a tin sheet to pile the excreta on to a cane basket, moving from home to home, and then carries the lot to dumping yard.

Cleaning dry latrines—there are about 794,000 such toilets in India—is a job allocated to the Dalits, the lowest in the social hierarchy among Hindus. Rekha’s parents did the same job, her in-laws too were manual scavengers and in 2015, her 13-year-old daughter joined the ranks of manual scavengers in India.

In the Balmiki or lower caste neighbourhood in this village, there are around 20 homes and women in all 20 households do the same work. “Even the stink of the excreta of your own child can be unbearable—imagine when adults, strangers do it, and that pile of shit is not removed till you come to do the job," Rekha says.

From every house she cleans, Rekha gets one roti and at the end of a year a few kgs of rice and dal. To meet her daily expenses, she does manual labour. Her house doesn’t have a fridge, a TV, or any other amenity that growing numbers of aspirational Indians now take for granted. For her, possessing such goods is a dream, except that the daily struggle for survival doesn’t leave her with much time to dream.

Rekha knows that the world around her has changed, even if hers is at a standstill. When she came to the village after marriage (she doesn’t remember the year), there were no shops, and no roads. The houses weren’t brick-and-mortar. In fact, she was brought in as a bride in a DCM truck. Her house was kuccha, made of mud. Now she lives in a house made of bricks, but still with a kuccha roof.

While India has progressed in the past 25 years, powered by economic reforms introduced in 1991, Rekha says her job has remained the same—just as it was when her parents did it.

“I look at how people’s lives have changed. How so many vehicles ply on the road, how everyone is carrying a phone, how people have moved forward. We are where we were."

This is the tenth part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization.

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