Eradicating manual scavenging should be India’s top priority as the caste-based practice is worse than slavery and will destroy BR Ambedkar’s dream of an equal society, Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson said on Wednesday.
Speaking to HT from the west Delhi offices of his Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), he condemned the so-called growing fundamentalism and said the recent thrashing of Dalit youth in Gujarat proved these “anti-democratic” powers thought they were the law.
“People want to tell Dalits what to eat, what to wear, how to live but Dalits have started to resist. Dominant castes are violating the law and it is up to the government to uphold democracy,” he said.
The 50-year-old was awarded the Magsaysay – known as Asia’s Nobel Prize -- for his pioneering organisation founded in 1993 that works to eradicate the wide-spread practice of people lifting and cleaning human excreta by hand.
The organisation has grown to nearly 30 states and more than 6,000 volunteers but much work needs to be done to eradicate the profession that employs Dalit women and children almost exclusively because India’s millennia-old caste system considers them impure.
“Look at Swachh Bharat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did cleaning for 2 minutes but who will clear the toilets afterwards? It will be Dalits,” he said, demanding that social justice and technology go hand-in-hand.
“Efforts to address caste and patriarchy are almost absent from Swachh Bharat. By constructing crores of toilets, you’re inviting more sewage and septic tank deaths.”
Manual scavenging is banned in India but the rule is not stringently enforced. Wilson said an estimated 200,000 manual scavengers work in the country at present, not counting sewer cleaners and safai karmacharis. The worst performing states are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Apart from them, the biggest employer of manual scavengers in India is the Railways.
“They run bullet trains but don’t eradicate scavenging. Where’s the technology for those who want to end lifting shit and live with dignity,” he asked.
The prolific campaigner is soft spoken and self-taught in English. As we speak, his two mobile phones are ring incessantly with call after call of congratulations pouring in.
Wilson seems almost detached, betraying emotions only when the media herds the 20-odd SKA members for a group photograph. “It’s an important day but the credit goes to the women who threw away their baskets. We helped them but they fought the war,” he said, beaming.
He advocated for a change in people’s mindsets for caste oppression to be eradicated. “People call me Bhangi even now. We don’t find apartments to house our offices. Our way of thinking needs to change.”
He stops for a minute, choked with emotion, then takes an unwashed plate he had dinner on earlier to the kitchen. Cameras quickly gather as he starts to clean it himself.
We try and lighten the somber mood by informing him that he is a top Twitter trend. His friends and employees insist he must get a television in his office.
“I don’t have a Twitter account. I don’t even know how to operate,” he said, as people explained the concept of a Trend to him.
Born in Karnataka’s Kolar gold fields region to a Dalit family, Wilson said he said he slowly understood that he was an “untouchable” and from a family of manual scavengers in primary school after his dominant caste classmates and neighbours heaped on humiliation.
He began work against manual scavenging in 1982, more than a decade before SKA was formed. One afternoon, he lost control of his temper when seeing his relatives and family scrape off excreta.
“We talked about democracy and freedom. I felt like my freedom was denied. I couldn’t compromise. It was worse than slavery,” he told HT, emotion choking his voice.
But once he began his work, one of his biggest challenges was asking women with no other mode of income to quit scavenging.
“This was the cruelty of scavenging. If you fought the system, you were left with no income.”
But instead of asking them to quit, Wilson took a different approach, going to villages and narrating his own tales of humiliation at the hands of dominant caste people.
“They related with my story, often with tears in their eyes. This is how we united to fight the system,” he said.
Ambedkar was central to the fight, he told HT, arguing that he wouldn’t have started SKA had it not been for the writings of the father of India’s constitution.
“I didn’t know of Ambedkar till 1990. Then I went on a cycle rally to celebrate his birth centenary and his writings changed my life. We follow in his way.”
But one of India’s most-prominent antic-caste campaigners was saddened by rising Dalit atrocities.
He called the suicide of PhD student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad “institutional murder”, saying society pushed people like him to death.
He also said food choices should be a personal matter, referring to calls for a nationwide beef ban and a spurt in violence against suspected cow smugglers.
“The staple food of Dalits and Muslims is beef. No one should feel hurt by it or force changes.”
He expressed shock at the Gujarat thrashing, saying earlier the government machinery would keep casteist society elements in check but now things were getting out of control. “The fundamentalists don’t want to listen and take the law in their own hand. This is dangerous in a democracy.”
The legal ban has slashed manual scavenger numbers to an eighth of the nearly 1.5 million two decades ago but impunity for employers hasn’t vanished. The SKA estimates than more than 1,000 sewer cleaners have died in the past three years.
For an organization with limited resources, the SKA’s achievements are impressive. After Parliament banned manual scavenging in 1993, it trained volunteers and workers and was crucial behind a 2014 Supreme Court verdict that said the deaths of safai karmacharis must be punished and compensation of Rs 10 lakh given.
Last December, the SKA undertook a 125-day Bhim Yatra that covered 30 states with volunteers spreading awareness about the plight of sewer workers and latrine cleaners.
The campaign ended in Delhi on Ambedkar’s birthday this year with hundreds of workers carrying banners saying, “Jai Bhim” and “Stop Killing Us”.
“We democraticised the society through our struggles in the court and on the streets. We went to leaders with 500 women. Through hartals and dharnas, we were successful,” he said.