New Delhi: “At an age when children are given toys to play with and don’t really care about what the future has in store, I was struggling to create a space for myself. I had understood the importance of standing up for my own identity,” said 34-year-old, Shalini, a transgender who is now working as a caretaker of community toilets in Warangal’s Deendayal Nagar, Telangana.
Born into a family of masons with two siblings in Warangal, Shalini had a difficult childhood having to cope with her gender identity and accept it. At the age of 14, she chose her gender and decided to be named as Shalini. However, this gender change did not come easy to her. There was a lot of resistance from her family and the society.
Shalini added, “My parents feared that because of my identity, no one will marry my sisters and they asked me to leave the house. I was disowned by my own family members and by the society.”
Shalini left the house in search of making her own mark one day – a space where she will be accepted by everyone. This was the turning point in her life. She met people from the transgender community in Warangal with whom she started living. Initially she earned a livelihood from begging and as time passed by she craved to earn a more dignified living livelihood. In her late 20’s she became a member of the Priyanka self-help group (SHG) in the city, which works with the most vulnerable people of the society and helpS them earn a better life. She said,
I think, I was lucky because just when I joined the self-help group got contracted for Operations and Maintenance of community toilets in the city and without any second thoughts I was nominated as a caretaker of the facility. People were scared to work or do anything related to toilets, but I somehow knew that this is my only chance to have a dignified and better life. And it proved me right.
Explaining her daily chores and job profile, Shalini said,
Every day I wake up around 4 o’clock as from 5 in the morning my shift starts. I have a responsibility of cleaning all the toilet blocks in my area and staying at the facility till 8 in the evening.
What’s inspiring is the fact that Shalini did not just restrict her work to cleaning of toilets. She added,
I wanted to give back to the society who let me work and accepted me for who I am. When I started working at the community toilet initially, I realised that not many knew the importance of having one near them or having the access to it. At that time, India was learning about the Swachh Bharat Mission programme and toilet was still a very new term for everyone around. I knew the importance of having a safe place which we call a toilet, I couldn’t understand how women were okay to go and defecate in the open. And this fact made me want to reach out to them and tell them about the benefits of having one.
Initially, Shalini started reaching out to each household surrounding the community toilet, to identify houses without a toilet. Then she noted the details of each member of such households. She also maintained a chart and register of the person visiting the toilet. If she noticed some members of the households not visiting the toilet regularly, she would go to their house and make enquiries to find out why they were not using the community toilet.
I was worried and curious to know why people were not coming to the facility when they had one. I got reasons like because they are not cleaned properly, people don’t know how to use a toilet and some prefer outdoor locations. The most common problem was that community toilets were dirty. I took it upon myself to ensure that no member at least in my area can complain about a dirty toilet. I made it a point that I am cleaning the toilet block three times a day so that it is fit for usage at all point of timeS by FOR everyone. Once I used to finish my cleaning work, I used to go door-to-door telling people the importance of using a toilet and made them believe that whenever they will come and use the facility, it will be my duty to clean it properly, Shalini added.
With education and awareness as her tools Shalini made sure no one defecates in the open in Deendayal Nagar. Shalini also started to earn Rs 16,000 per month as remuneration from the Greater Warangal Municipal Corporation for maintaining the community toilet block.
Till now she has been able to educate more than 1000 households and stopped many from defecating in the open. Even the community members surrounding the community toilet started praising and appreciating Shalini’s efforts to keep the toilet clean. Her work in popularising the use of community toilet and earning a place for herself in the society have also made her parents happy. She added,
I am myself very proud and I love what I do. No work is small or big, now I want to change the mentality of people when it comes to taking up such jobs. Secondly, we transgenders have always faced reluctance from the community at large, I am happy that slowly this reality is also changing. When I started working as a sanitation worker in 2014, not many people around me knew the importance of such work. But as Swachh Bharat Mission gained popularity and our country move forward to achieve open defecation, people started realising the importance of the word toilet. Over the years, I have seen it become as a topic of discussion, which is great. I hope this gets continued in the same spirit.
Talking about her role and work in 2020 era and how is she making her living in the times of coronavirus, Shalini said,
Till now, I have never faced much of difficulties in what I do. But 2020 changed all of it. When coronavirus outbreak happened, it was so sudden that no one got the time to think of any back-up plans. One day I was going to work as usual and second day it was all shut.
When the lockdown took place, I had no way to commute. I live 15 kilometres away from my work place – the community toilet. For the initial 2-3 days, I skipped going but soon I realised that I just cannot imagine my days without going and cleaning the toilets. So, i decided to walk. On some days, I got lucky and got lift till my community toilet block and most of the days, I simply walked. I had decided to continue cleaning toilets as always, so that it remains clean and fit for use. So with my protective gears on and taking all precautions I continued working. There was a time when we ran out of toilet cleaning stuff and money transfers took time, so I decided to pitch in from my own pocket and get cleaning sorted. I think, this pandemic has taught US the importance of having access to basic sanitation and hygiene even more.
Now with the importance of using toilets, Shalini also give lessons on good hygiene and why washing hands at all times is important. She also guides people about wearing masks and practiSing social distancing to fight the ongoing coronavirus crisis. People like Shalini are true champions and warriors.
“We should never compromise in life, all of us should accept the fact and reality in life and move forward. Working as a sanitation worker is not something one should look down at, instead, it should be accepted in a society as a dignified work. I think then most sanitation workers just like me will start loving what they do and will do it will all their heart,” Shalini signed off.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.