When he was 23, a curious Bezwada Wilson asked older members of his community to show him how they worked. At first, they evaded his earnest requests. When they finally took him along, something inside Wilson broke. With just a bucket and his bare hands as equipment, one of the workers was trying to scoop out human excreta from a pit. Numb with shock, Wilson started weeping. “I completely lost it then”, he said.
Wilson’s community, the Madigas of Kolar, Karnataka, like many other Dalit communities branded as ‘untouchables’ have traditionally worked as manual scavengers, cleaning human faecal matter from dry latrines. According to an estimate by Wilson’s organisation, the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), 2, 51, 963 dry latrines still exist in 6 states and 1.3 million people in India are still engaged in this inhuman work.
Known as Anna, the bespectacled, mild-mannered Wilson refuses to accept discrimination and indignity with matter-of-factness. From that fateful day, he has led a relentless revolt against the practice of manual scavenging. “I started arguing with the people from my community, asking them why they were doing this dirty work? Why didn’t they just stop?” he says. But he always got the same response — if we stop, where will we get roti from?
Sitting in his office in Patel Nagar, Wilson says emphatically, “Liberation cannot wait for everyone’s roti. I wanted them to think — why should I have to clean someone’s sh*t for food?” On this philosophy, the SKA was started in 1986. The organisation works for the eradication of manual scavenging and the liberation and rehabilitation of those engaged in this work. One of the major tasks facing members of SKA is to change the entrenched mindsets of people working as scavengers. The organisation has close to 6, 000 volunteers now, most from within the community itself, since Wilson feels that ‘insiders’ have more impact.
Meena, who worked as a scavenger before she was recruited as an SKA volunteer, said, “My mother and father were both engaged in this work and I followed them. But talking to Anna and the volunteers made me realise that this work is inhuman.” The health hazards involved also opened her eyes. “We should also have a chance to lead healthy, educated lives. Is it written on our foreheads that our destiny is to be scavengers?” she asked.
Unfortunately, in a country where, for many, caste still dictates your profession and your life, changing one’s ‘destiny’ is not that easy. “Hoping to find a job, I registered my name at the employment exchange. They heard my caste and automatically registered my name for sweeping and scavenging jobs,” recalled Wilson.
Meena has a similar tale. “When I decided I wouldn’t scavenge any more, I tried my hand at dyeing, bindi-making and opening a grocery shop. But without any support and money, nothing worked out.” But she is adamant that she will never look back. “I will never do that dirty work again and neither will my children. I want my daughter to become an IAS officer.”
When the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993, deeming scavenging illegal, Wilson felt his life’s work was vindicated. But almost two decades later, manual scavenging is still a reality. “We have always asked for total and complete eradication of scavenging. We never tried to organise manual scavengers into a union or ask for their rights or upliftment because our mission will only be complete when there are no manual scavengers,” said Wilson. Perhaps this is why, SKA is still unregistered. The organisation works for sweepers, sewer and septic tank cleaners as well as those who clean railway tracks.
Petitioning courts to grant rehabilitation, meeting National Advisory Council members, going into the field to talk to workers, holding meetings with other NGOs, it’s all in a day’s work for Wilson. No wonder then that he lives out of his office. Ask him if he misses having a family and he said, “This is my life, this work gives me satisfaction.”
In 2010, when the countdown to the Commonwealth Games began, he launched a parallel countdown of his own: the end of manual scavenging. The SKA team worked night and day, mobilising people and holding events to make sure all dry latrines were demolished before the deadline. The year that had started with hope, ended in despair. They could not meet their goal. “I was depressed. People would ask me — you lost?” recalled Wilson. But busy men have no time for gloom. “I realised that this is not a game, but a movement for liberation. We may not have won this battle, but we will keep struggling.”