His mother and grandmother were manual scavengers in the same school he studied. They had to clean the toilets without water. And that became young Vimal Kumar’s identity. ‘Jamadarni ka bete’ (son of a sweeper), is how Vimal Kumar was addressed by teachers and students right from the beginning at the “Hindu High School”.
I felt ashamed and became a recluse. I would take the last bench in class and tried to not utter a word.” Sometimes students asked him why he was fair even though he was from the “Bhangi” (another word in Hindi for a ‘manual scavenger’) community. Every day caste based taunts by the students was normal for me. I was habitual of hearing it. I was often beaten up and faced caste-based violence.
Vimal is the founder of Movement for Scavenger Community (MSC), an organization committed to the eradication of manual scavenging in India and bringing education and awareness to the existing scavenger community. Under MSC, he also operates the Dr. B.R. Ambedker Youth Study Centre which provides career counselling and a small library to disadvantaged students in Haryana.
And that’s not all. He’s also a Ph.D scholar in social work with a focus on caste violence from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. He was awarded the Young Professional Fellowship from the Dalit Foundation in 2008. Vimal holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Social Work from the University of Kurukshetra in Haryana. Vimal is also an Acumen fellow from the 2015 cohort.
All of this didn’t happen in one day. Vimal’s story has violence, insult and struggle.
His experiences in school were bitter and he obviously lost interest in school. His mother worked as a scavenger in different homes, some of which were of children who went to the same school. “They always avoided me during playing and eating during breaks.”
When Vimal was in the 7th standard, four boys from school who were from the ‘upper caste’ beat him up. Vimal went to his parents but they were struggling to make ends meet and didn’t have time for Vimal’s problems at school. To fight against this discrimination, Vimal formed a gang, “After that incident with me, my gang and I would usually beat the boys in evening and night. But after some time, I realized the ‘upper caste’ students were given encouragement by the teachers and their parents. After a gang fight, usually the parents of these kids came to the school and punished us. They also forced our teachers to punish us. My parents didn’t have the time to come and fight for us. My parents always said that if they received any complaint about me anymore, they would send me to the tea shop to clean the utensils and stop school. That was the double pressure on me to go to school and survive in the discriminated environment.”
When he was in the 9th standard, he formed a cricket team comprising fellow children from the slum. They won many cricket tournaments. His team’s win at tournaments turned it around for him. Many of his childhood friends now started calling him “Captain”. “It was my first successful leadership initiative in my community. I got dignity and respect, something I had not ever had.”
He graduated from the 10th standard and joined the Indira Gandhi National College in Ladwa. The college had three students from his community. After the first year, two of them dropped out. Vimal’s worst nightmare was now coming true – school life was repeating itself. He was good at sports and on the field he was often asked how he could run so fast. Vimal recalls,
I won a race and these two boys came to me and said – you are so thin and you are from a poor family, you do not have milk in your family to drink, then other said he is a pork eater dirty “Chuhra” (scavenger) and they are energetic as pigs running around in squalor. Many times they tried to beat me but I just avoided it and kept suffering all the abuse.
With college being torturous, and family pressure mounting to earn money, he quit college and became a salesman. “There was no fixed salary. Every day I would knock about 100 doors. The office was 20 KM from my home in Kurukshetra city. I had to manage travel and food as well. I started to earn around Rs. 3000 every month.”
Aspiring to do better, he did some computer courses from NIIT. He got a job as a computer teacher in a girl’s college. His hope that things would look up was short lived. “I was the youngest teacher there. People were aware of my caste. My colleagues usually denied to have lunch with me and the taunts kept coming. But I was fully focused on my work and student appreciated how I taught them.”
Then why did he quit the job? “One day, electricity went and the manager shouted at me to go start the generator. Many teachers were sitting there and the manager just called me a slave. I told the manager that I had never started the generator so I’d be happy to do it if someone guided me this time. The manager said – If you don’t know how to start a generator, this job is not for you. If you want to work with us you have to clean our offices, there is no other job for you. I met with the director of the college who happened to be the father of this manager and hence no change came about. That day I was hopeless and decided to go back home because I wanted a dignified life. I cried a lot. I had studied hard so that my education could give me a better life but it all seemed useless.”
After his tears dried, he decided to be an agent of change. He completed M.A in social work and started working with the Dalit foundation. His work took him to different parts of India that gave him the insight that among Dalits, the scavenger community is the most marginalised. To his shock, the Dalits also treated the scavenger community as untouchables. That’s when Vimal decided to started a movement for the scavenger community himself. Where did he draw his inspiration from? “Just as I did in my childhood to make a cricket team.”
MSC, registered as an NGO was founded in 2009. The members are young people, social activists and like-minded people belonging to the scavenger community. MSC is committed to work towards the social and economic empowerment of the scavenger community through the medium of education.
To achieve this goal, they started a centre called “Dr.B.R. Ambedker Youth Study Center” in 2012 in a scavenger hamlet in Haryana. The centre has a small library, free computer classes, career counselling, and carries out evening classes for the children from the community.
Vimal adds, “We have also initiated SHGs of women sweepers. These SHGs enable them to move out of their occupation and invest in better, alternative livelihoods. We have a network of around 500 young people in 10 states of India. We believe that as members of the community, we understand our problems better and work towards the emancipation of members of our own community.”
Through MSC, four students from the community are now studying in TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Mumbai. They have started another centre in Bhubaneswar, Odisha.
Vimal says that education is key. It’s the reason why he is pursuing a Ph.D as well. “If I become Dr. Vimal Kumar from a good institute, people can’t deny my degree. My word will have more value and respect. And this is what my community needs as well. Good education will help them move ahead in their lives and get rid of the “Bhangi” tag.”
His dream for himself is a post doctorate from abroad and to spend his life as a researcher activist who will raise awareness about the caste based discrimination across the world. For the community, Vimal dreams of a world which offers dignity, respect, and equal opportunity to members of the scavenger community.