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Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson: Manual scavengers’ deaths are political murders by governments

Ramon Magsaysay Award winner for 2016, Dr Bezwada Wilson as a 10-year old boy grew up listening to the derogatory word ‘Tothi’ (bhangi in Hindi, sweeper) caustically aimed at him by others at school and in the society. When he moved out of his native – Kolar Goldfields township in Karnataka to Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh to attend his middle school, nothing changed. He was made to believe that since he belonged to a family of manual scavengers, even if he wasn’t pursuing the profession, he was no less than an untouchable and an outcaste. Wilson, who was born in a Dalit family and was the first in his family to pursue higher education, chose to channelise his seething anger to a crusade to eradicate manual scavenging.

During his earlier days as a social worker aiming at bringing a change in his community by asking people not to adopt to manual scavenging as a profession, Wilson first confronted with the problem of alcoholism amongst scavengers. It was during his attempts to find out the cause of drinking, he discovered the underbelly of the profession of manual scavengers.

“Every person had a story to tell, that of pain, neglect, apathy, insult, inequality, discrimination and their compulsion to do the job that the society looks down upon as degrading for human civilisation. I tried to convince them to give up the job of removing by hand human excrement from dry latrines and carrying them on head in baskets, and physically getting inside septic tank to clean it. But, I failed as they too had no other option of earning livelihood. This made me sad and depressed, and at one point of time I thought of committing suicide, but didn’t have the courage,” Wilson shares.

 Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson: Manual scavengers’ deaths are political murders by governments

Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Bezwada Wilson. Image by Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

It was next morning while looking up at the sky that he decided to fight out this social ill. And, this gave birth to his movement of eradicating manual scavenging in 1984, and in 1992 it officially got the name —Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). Then there was no looking back for Wilson, who travelled across states, held meetings and demonstrations for a crusade, leading not only with a sense of moral outrage but also with remarkable skills in organizing the masses, and working within India's complex legal system.

The award citation aptly describes his work stating, “In electing Bezwada Wilson to receive the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognises his moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India, reclaiming for the dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright.”

Wilson (50), the convener of SKA speaks at length during a one-on-one interview with Firstpost at his office in West Delhi, where one can see posters in Hindi on the walls asking “Sewer mein hatyaon ka zimmedar kaun?” (Who’s responsible for the killings inside sewer lines?).

Excerpts:

You have been involved in the manual scavengers’ movement (Safai Karmachari Andolan) for three decades. Has there been any difference in the situation since then?  

Yes there has been much difference to the situation then and now. Now, the manual scavengers listen to what I have been telling them for decades—of giving up this work. Many of them have left doing manual scavenging; threw away the baskets they used for carrying night soil; and staged demonstrations against this ill. Now they have gathered the courage of openly declaring that they don’t want to do it any further, nor would they let the next generation pursue this profession.

What has been the response of political class and government to your movement?

Nothing much has been done by the elected governments. The political will to change the situation is still missing. Mere lectures won’t help in eradication of manual scavenging; it needs a systematic approach to address the problem. Since the manual scavengers are scattered in pockets and are not in big numbers in any particular constituency, they are not considered as ‘vote bank’. For the politicians, unless it’s a vote bank issue, nothing much is done for a particular section of the society, like in the case of scavengers. On the other hand, if politicians ask manual scavengers to give up this profession, they would have to provide an alternative to it and they have nothing to offer.

What is the status of this problem?

At present in this 21st century India, there are 1.80 lakh dalit households manually cleaning the 7.90 lakh public and private dry latrines (not the modern flush ones) across India; 98 per cent of scavengers are meagerly paid women and girls. The states like UP, MP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir have the maximum number of manual scavengers, and that too in urban areas. While the Constitution and other laws prohibit dry latrines and the employment of manual scavengers, these have not been strictly enforced since government itself is the biggest violator.

What kind of hurdles do the scavengers face, who decide to give up the profession in their assimilation in mainstream society? What is the society’s perception towards them?

It’s extremely tough for those who are giving up this work to switch over to doing something different. They have to toil three times harder to earn livelihood. The mainstream society is never ready to accept them. Rather, the society sees them as victims and expresses sympathy towards them. However, there are exceptions, who have lent helping hands in their rehabilitation. There is complete apathy on government’s part towards those who have left this job. There’s no rehabilitation plan. The government provides skill development training in computers to them. What can scavengers do by undergoing computer training, who have been engaged in this job for years? It’s a sham. Like, Swachh Bharat Mission, the government should launch a ‘Livelihood mission’ for them by creating a comprehensive action plan for their alternative livelihood.

The five-year budget outlay to rehabilitate manual scavengers was surprisingly reduced to Rs 10 crore in the Budget 2016, from Rs 4,656 crore that was allocated in 2013!

Given the fact that there are still people living as manual scavengers in the country, do you think the ultimate goal of Swachh Bharat Mission is a pipe-dream?

Swachh Bharat Mission’s aim is to build 12 crore toilets by 2019. It’s about corporatization of toilets, where government is not bothered whether people are actually using them or not, whether there is provision of water in the toilets or not. The mission doesn’t talk about eradication of manual scavenging. Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a clarion call on 2 October, 2014 asking everyone to do the cleaning. But, after that day, who has been doing the actual cleaning of toilets? It’s the scavengers alone; but they haven’t got any recognition yet. Nobody is bothered about their deaths on duty.

The government is talking of building Smart Cities. But in most parts of India, basic sewage system is not right and scavengers have to physically get into septic tanks and manholes for cleaning…

Unless you make smart sanitation, you can’t make smart city. We talk of urbanization, building smart cities, but unless there is proper underground drainage system, cleaning of sewer system with minimum human intervention and mechanized system to clean septic tanks and sewer lines, the smart city that the government is talking about is meaningless. Even today, people are dying while physically cleaning manholes. Should we call it modernization of urban infrastructure?

Do you think stricter laws are required towards eradication of manual scavenging?

Laws are already there. After our consistent efforts through our movement --Safai Karmachari Andolan for years, ‘The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993’ came into existence. It was followed by ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’. I had been a member of four task forces to enforce proper implementation of the acts. But, nothing happened. No one has been punished for violation of the act. Our Indian bureaucracy always ensures an escape route for itself, whenever a law is made. Same is in this case too. The act is good, but implementation is extremely poor. Violators of law have not been punished.

In the last three years, 1370 manual scavengers have died while doing the job. What is the ultimate solution to bring an end to this ill?    

We know everyday safai karmacharis are entering the sewer lines and many are dying.  We have gathered this data of 1370 deaths in last three years after the Supreme Court judgment that said entering the sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations, and for each such death, a compensation of Rs 10 lakh should be given.

When everyone knows about this and we have reported it to various governments, none of them took the smallest step to stop us from getting killed inside the sewer lines. As safai karmacharis we’re asking the government, who’ll take responsibility of these deaths?

A deceased’s family is supposed to get a compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the government, but as per our records only 36 families got compensation. The state governments moved Supreme Court to review the decision on compensation. You can imagine the level of insensitivity of state governments. We declare it very clearly that these are political murders by the governments. Despite knowing that they will die by entering septic tanks, why are they being allowed to do so day after day? We demand the government to come up with a comprehensive action plan where the family of a deceased (scavenger) doesn’t have to run from pillar to post, and their killing can be stopped.

Your work has got recognition and you have won Magsaysay Award for your movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India and reclaiming human dignity for the dalits in India. What’s your plan now?

Our next plan is ‘Direct Action’. We’ll demand the government for actual implementation of the Acts at the earliest. These dry toilets and manual scavenging are the symbols of shame. We want the government to built flush toilets. If government fails, we’ll go and demolish these dry community toilets, where a scavenger is forced to work manually. In fact by doing so, we’ll be working as per the law mentioned in the Act. Manual scavenging is a blight on humanity in India and it has to end now.

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Updated Date: Jul 30, 2016 13:07:30 IST