Alwar (Rajasthan): The colour blue stands for women's empowerment here in Rajasthan, a sign that they have been pulled out of a life once condemned to manual scavenging.
Life for 40-year-old Santosh Atwal, 33-year-old Banno Saini and several other Dalit women was just about following the legacy of their ancestors -- carrying night soil every morning, cleaning dry latrines, drains and gutters -- and in return facing the unjust behavior and abhorrence of society, that considered even the shadow of manual scavengers over it a "sin".
However it was salvation for the women of the Balmiki caste here; over a decade later, the very same people became fond of the food items they prepare.
For them, not only have caste barriers ended, but they were able to create a sense of reverence for themselves in the public eye. All this was courtesy Sulabh International, an NGO that works to promote human rights, environmental sanitation and social reforms through training.
Attired in blue saris, their uniform, a group of 105 women, sharp at 6 a.m. every morning, reach Nai Disha, literally meaning a new way, a vocational training centre started by Sulabh International in this town, known for its forts and lakes, that is just a two-hour drive from the national capital.
Under the initiative, they are engaged in making edible items like papad, noodles, pickles and several household items.
Word soon spread about their products and now they are also available in Delhi, Chandigarh and Ahmedabad.
"We had never expected this kind of success when we started working here way back in 2003. Relating ourselves with the upper caste people was almost an impossibility, leave aside making something that could be used by the people who didn't even consider us living beings. However, Sulabh has made this happen," Saini, who has been with the centre since its inception, told IANS.
"More and more woman from our community want to join us so they too can get empowered by working here," said Saini, who can also speak in English, which she learned at the centre.
Describing the earlier situation, she said: "To avoid humiliation, we were forced to hide behind veils not because we wanted to, but because if we moved without them, people would identify us as the women who carried night soil."
As per the 1961 Census, there were around 3.5 million scavengers who used to clean human excreta. Though a lot of them changed their profession, at least 60 percent of them stuck to it because of the lack of job opportunities.
Nai Disha in-charge Rajinder Singh said the women at the centre are also taught embroidery, make-up, including bridal makeup, and making saris and jute bags.
"It was never easy for us to convince the women to join our centre. Though they were interested in overcoming the stigma that was attached to them, they were under the impression that if people come to know about it, the discrimination would aggravate. But they were wrong," Singh told IANS, adding that as they also provided things that were not available in the town - home made noodles, cotton balls and most importantly, a beauty parlour, they instantly became acceptable to society.
He said though initially several people objected to the initiative, they later accepted it.
For the women at least, life has changed not only socially but economically too.
Apart from being taken out to visit and see other parts of India, including the Maha Kumbh mela, a sacred Hindu festival held in Allahabad, they have been to Geneva, New York and London. Sulabh has arranged all their trips.
On April 30, they shared food with union Home Minister Rajnath Singh at an event in the national capital.
Sulabh International Founder Bindeshwar Pathak said that for over a decade, the women have been trained in various skills.
"Our next focus is to ensure that they are able to establish their own businesses," Pathak told IANS.
"The business would not only help them lead a comfortable life but also ensure that they are able to educate their children for a better career. This will automatically mean the end of caste-based discrimination, which sadly still exists in many places in India," he added.
Emphasising that the colour blue has become the symbol of women's empowerment in and around Alwar, Pathak said: "Once the women at Nai Disha are well established, the other women who are still confined to the cage of scavenging will at least think of coming out of it, which is extremely important," Pathak said.