I returned from India a little over a month ago and in the time I have been back, I have been able to reflect on my time there. Living in India and working was an experience like no other that I have had in my life. I found a new freedom while there and a new sense of confidence in myself and my ability to navigate the world. When I think back to what my trip involved, from traveling alone, to establishing myself in a place that was completely unfamiliar, and navigating through new and confusing experiences, I am in awe that I was able to do it all. Before leaving for India, I was someone who lacked confidence and rarely put myself into situations where I felt vulnerable. In India, I was forced to take responsibility for myself and without the pressures I was used to experiencing back home, I was able to grow in new ways. Looking back, the thing that I miss most are the people that I met in India and being apart of a simple daily life that was both fulfilling and invigorating. I learned so much about social equality and the work necessary to make change. I feel a new passion about going into this type of work after I finish school. I think I will learn more about what exactly India meant to me as I get back in the groove of school. The time I have been back has mostly involved readjusting and reorganizing the things that I left unfinished before I left, and I haven’t been living the norm of what I am used to. However, I do know that this summer was one of the best summers of my life, I am so excited to take the skills and perspective my time in India gave me to find new places and learn about other cultures and people.
Last week I had the opportunity to tour and meet with people from Sulabh, an organization based in Delhi that deals with sanitation work. They are known for their International Museum of Toilets which is included on many lists of odd museums in the world. Like the organization I work for, Sulabh does have some work that deals with manual scavenging. I went to Sulabh with the other SKA intern who is also from America and a coworker from SKA who had deeper insights regarding the manual scavenging world.
The first part of the visit involved a reception by the members of the organization. We were presented with scarves and introduced to the organization. Next we toured the school run by Sulabh. 60 percent of the students who attend the school are children of former manual scavengers. Since school is out for vacation, the only attendees of the school currently are girls being trained in technical skills such as sewing and fashion design. This aspect of the tour provided some interesting context for my research project.
Next we went and looked at some of the toilet solutions Sulabh had come up with in order to avoid manual scavenging. At this point, our tour guide went more into depth about what manual scavenging was. Myself and the other people from SKA had not told anyone at Sulabh that we were connected to SKA so they were unaware of our knowledge about the issue. At this point, my colleague from SKA asked straight up if manual scavenging still existed. Our tour guide responded with “no”. This encounter showed me why demonstrations and raising awareness is such a major part of SKA’s work. Even people and organizations who claim to be helping the movement refuse to claim that manual scavenging is still an issue that affects people in India. Within five minutes of leaving Sulabh, we came upon 3 men working in the street. 1 of them stood chest deep in a storm drain shoveling out waste. This practice is considered manual scavenging according to the law passed by India’s government. It was extremely ironic that we had just been told that manual scavenging did not exist yet the practice was actively occurring right outside the doors of the organization.
Over the past week and half, I have had the opportunity to do some field visits with SKA. For the particular project I am working on, the field visits have involved meeting with women who are in rehabilitation programs provided by SKA. These women are all of the lower caste and the majority have been employed in manual scavenging at some point in their life. They were selected by SKA to join a rehabilitation program due to how bad their living conditions were. For each field visit, myself, the other intern at SKA, and one to two SKA team members travel to the homes of the women. The trip out is usually pretty long, often requiring taking the metro all the way to the end of the line and then taking one to two additional rickshaw rides further out. Once at the house, the women tell us their life story and their experience with the rehabilitation program. This is translated to us by the SKA team members.
This project has been very valuable in allowing me to see SKA’s specific programs to help improve the living conditions and the specific challenges they have to face. For many of the candidates, SKA allows the women choice in finding a livelihood that they want to engage in. This has included sewing clothes, selling vegetables, driving a rickshaw, raising buffalo to sell the milk, and more. From an objective standpoint, this seems to be the most sustainable method of creating a rehabilitation program because it allows for personal agency and a sense of ownership over one’s livelihood. However SKA has had to confront some issues with women who are not as motivated or enterprising as others. These women have a harder time finding a method of living that is sustainable for them. Doing these interviews has also given me a better perspective of the people themselves. For people who are engaged in cleaning work, sometimes finding a better livelihood is blocked by mental barriers. In meeting one women who had previously done manual scavenging, we met her son who is still currently employed in cleaning work. Despite his mother’s example and the influence of SKA, the son doesn’t have the confidence to find a new type of work. The values of the caste system that have been continually imposed on him has caused him to believe that he is only able to do this one type of work. When reading about and learning about the victims, the educational, economical, and health inequalities are very obvious and easy to understand. However, it seems that outside perspectives often tend to overlook the mental and emotional effects experienced by disadvantaged people. Despite having the financial support and guidance from organizations such as SKA, it can be difficult to overcome the emotional trauma caused by a lifetime of discrimination.
The intensity of my work has drastically picked up these last two weeks. I haven’t been leaving the office until around seven and will probably start working 6 days a week moving forward. The environment of SKA is very different from what I am used to. People tend to work seven days a week. Instead of every one sitting at their own computer station/cubicle to do work, people often sit together and are relatively social. The head of SKA, Mr. Wilson, has his own office, but whenever he is in it, the door remains open and people go in and out of it as they please. There are four chairs that sit in front of his desk and at least one of them is normally occupied whenever Mr. Wilson is at his desk. I am very used to having to ask for permission to enter someone’s office space, so it has felt very odd to be able to walk in and sit without being invited, especially considering my role as simply an intern.
This past week, SKA hosted a conference of people from field offices located in four separate states of India. There were maybe about 30 people who came. SKA specifically requested that each field office send an equal number of men and women. It was cool to see a space where an effort was made to ensure that the women received an equal standing as men, with no one person or gender dominating the conversation. After the conference, several attendees asked to take their pictures with me. I am used to this happening at tourist sights, but being in a professional setting, I was a bit nervous to comply. I wasn’t sure if it would be very professional of me to be put into the center of attention simply because I looked different and spoke with an odd accent. I also was unable to communicate with any of the people who wanted to take a picture with me because of the language barrier, so the interaction felt a little bit superficial. However, another person present explained that for these people, it was very significant to have someone not from India care about and be interested in these issues. Manual scavenging does not receive much attention outside of India as it is an issue that is pretty much prominent only in India. For someone whose entire career and often life is dedicated to the issue, it is memorable to have a foreigner willing to take the time to listen to their stories and help work for the same cause. Hearing this and thinking about my position from this perspective changed my view a bit. I am only an intern, and I am only with SKA for two months, but I hope that from this experience, I can share the stories and work of the people of SKA in places where they may not have been shared before.
While in Delhi I am working at an NGO called Safai Karmachari Andolan. This NGO focuses on eradicating the practice of manual scavenging and rehabilitating those who have been employed in the practice.
My first day at work involved a bit of shock when I learned that my boss had anticipated that I would be able to speak Hindi. Luckily, the majority of the people in the organization speak some English, though for most it is not a comfortable mode of communication. This has posed some interesting challenges. For example, one part of the project I am working on involved me working with 4 other people. I was not able to contribute as much as I would have liked because the majority of the discussion was held in Hindi. This has shown to me that being a valuable intern to the organization will manifest itself differently than how I generally view contributions to group projects. Coming from an academic space, where words and coherency are very important, it has been a very different experience being unable to understand much of what is being said. I am currently still feeling out exactly where my place is in certain scenarios.
Overall the environment of the organization has been very welcoming. The office has a nice dynamic, with people coming and going throughout the day. Despite being unable to have super in depth conversations with people due to language restrictions, I still feel as though I have made genuine connections with people in the office. I recently completed a project that involved making a software program for collecting data regarding deaths that occurred from manual scavenging. The process of doing this provided some insight into the work that Safai Karmachari Andolan undertakes. Going through the files of information on people who had died and designing a form that would be used to collect data from family members brought the issue of manual scavenging and the impact of the organization into a more stark and close view. It’s humbling to see how the everyday work of my coworkers is able to have such an impact in ending the issue and rehabilitating those who have been impacted by it.