Pragya Akhilesh, the trade unionist, activist and theatre director. She is also the national secretary of the Bhim Safai Karmachari Trade Union and the convener of Rehabilitation Research Initiative.
What does rehabilitation mean to her?
This initiative grew as a movement with the subjective understanding of Parsonian approach to rehabilitation. Personally, each member needs to be rehabilitated through a network model where the effect of the rehabilitation of a child can be seen on a mother and vice versa.
A lot of people when they think about the term ‘rehabilitation’, equate it with objective goals like getting a job, but do not take into account the sustenance after it.The real question is who are you rehabilitating? What is their socio-economic background? Are you setting up micro-credit self help tools for this member if that job doesn’t work?In this way, rehabilitation is objective, subjective and evaluative at the same time.
“I have never focused on the number of people rehabilitated; it is about whether the people you set on this journey are still in your life.”
What made her start the journey?
The ‘toilet woman’ epithet was first used in a negative sense as I have always worked with the sanitation workers. Family members of men who died in the septic tanks and while scavenging became the body of the initiative. They opened their own union of sanitation workers, and started challenging the lack of implementation of rehabilitation schemes by the government.
Sanitation workers who clean the toilets find themselves in public toilets that lack water supply. These toilets turn into ‘dry latrines. When their entire family acts as a sustainable unit, sanitation workers are liberated from state oppression. If they decide to leave the job we ask them to think how they want to rehabilitate them.
Her organisation tries to hold their hands while they break their own silence.The first SHG was a group of women sanitation workers who collected Rs 10 each from each other and held each other’s hands to liberate themselves. They became each other’s family member. When a group of people pushes each other to find their own path this is where the subjective and evaluative methods of rehabilitation become important.
About the Sanitation Workers and their rehabilitation
The sanitation workers who have successfully transitioned through the painful process of restoration are able to guide other workers on what hindrances they will face during the process.
Similarly, within different groups of men and women, the conversations around micro credit facilities, banking and small scale loans ease financial pressure. You have spoken about the need for a long learning process and understanding of the group of people you want to hold the hands of.
Rehabilitation in this way has not been about telling people what to do. If a person wants to take a class of folk theatre or learn singing it is also a way to restore life. When groups come together they themselves open many small political and cultural groups for doing activities together or having a conversation on things like minority community rights or gender.
There are multiple groups like Ambedkar Manch, Bhim Dal and Lok Theatre run by people of the community. In addition to this, women also put up their craft work in Dilli Haat through their small brands, Gulmohar and Neela Phool.
Sometimes it is also about enrolment in an English speaking course or learning a simple skill set. A person who wants to continue as a sanitation worker may also want to learn to sing. This is what an integrated life should look like. The scavenging community is very political when it comes to talking about caste and the eradication of manual scavenging.