Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan, won the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2016.(Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan, won the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2016.(Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

Dominant castes violating law, govt has to uphold democracy: Bezwada Wilson

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.
By Dhrubo Jyoti | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 28, 2016 09:26 AM IST

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.

Govt apathy

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.

Female sanitation workers protest against manual scavenging at a rally earlier this year. (Safai Karmachari Andolan)
Female sanitation workers protest against manual scavenging at a rally earlier this year. (Safai Karmachari Andolan)

Soft-spoken crusader

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.

Read | Bezwada Wilson, TM Krishna win Ramon Magsaysay Award

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.

Bezwada Wilson washes his plate after a meal at the Safai Karmachari Andolan office in west Delhi. (AP)
Bezwada Wilson washes his plate after a meal at the Safai Karmachari Andolan office in west Delhi. (AP)

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.

Early struggle

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.”

Dalit atrocities

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.”

Way forward

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.

Safai Karmacharis and volunteers seen during the 125-day Bhim Yatra. (Safai Karmachari Andolan)
Safai Karmacharis and volunteers seen during the 125-day Bhim Yatra. (Safai Karmachari Andolan)

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.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
app
Close
HT Image
HT Image

‘Construction in our own territory’: China on Arunachal village report

By Sutirtho Patranobis
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:56 PM IST
Beijing China on Thursday dismissed a report that said it had built a village in Arunachal Pradesh, saying the construction activities were within its own territory and its sovereign right
Close
HT Image
HT Image

Army plans to deploy 10,000 troops as LAC reinforcements

PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:52 PM IST
NEW DELHI: With a planned and gradual drawdown of soldiers underway in the Northeast ,where the security situation has significantly improved, the Indian Army plans to redeploy up to 10,000 extra troops by the year-end to carry out the force’s primary task --- dealing with the Chinese threat in the eastern sector, people familiar with the development said on Tuesday on condition of anonymity
Close
Ranchi: Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Chief Lalu Prasad Yadav being taken for his ultrasound at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), in Ranchi, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (PTI Photo)(PTI23-12-2020_000246B)(PTI)
Ranchi: Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Chief Lalu Prasad Yadav being taken for his ultrasound at Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), in Ranchi, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (PTI Photo)(PTI23-12-2020_000246B)(PTI)

Lalu Prasad under observation at RIMS after contracting pneumonia

PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:44 PM IST
  • RIMS Director Dr Kameshwar Prasad said it seems to be a case of acute pneumonia and he has been put under round-the-clock observation.
Close
Priyanka Chopra, Adarsh Gourav and Rajkummar Rao in a still from 'The White Tiger'. (SOURCED).
Priyanka Chopra, Adarsh Gourav and Rajkummar Rao in a still from 'The White Tiger'. (SOURCED).

Delhi HC refuses to stay Netflix premiere of ‘The White Tiger’

By Richa banka
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:43 PM IST
  • Hours before the release of the movie based on the Booker Prize winning novel of the same name written by Aravind Adiga, the court dismissed an urgent plea to injunct the makers and Netflix from premiering the movie.
Close
Bagchi doesn’t like the terms stray dogs or street dogs. Dogs living within localites are community dogs, he says.
Bagchi doesn’t like the terms stray dogs or street dogs. Dogs living within localites are community dogs, he says.

The community dogs of Dhanbad: pampered, protected, proud

By Shara Ashraf Prayag
UPDATED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:45 PM IST
In the coal capital of India, a group of animal lovers is encouraging people to treat dogs with love and compassion
Close
The Allahabad High Court had granted bail Samajwadi Party MP Azam Khan, his wife Tazeen Fatima and son Abdullah Azam Khan in a case of alleged forgery of Abdullah's birth certificate(HT FILE PHOTO)
The Allahabad High Court had granted bail Samajwadi Party MP Azam Khan, his wife Tazeen Fatima and son Abdullah Azam Khan in a case of alleged forgery of Abdullah's birth certificate(HT FILE PHOTO)

SC upholds bail for Azam Khan, wife and son in forgery case

By Abraham Thomas
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 11:12 PM IST
  • The Supreme Court dismissed the Uttar Pradesh government's appeal as it noted that the order was limited to grant of bail.
Close
Fishermen sitting at a demonstration site during a protest against the killing of four fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy, in Rameswaram on Thursday (ANI Photo)
Fishermen sitting at a demonstration site during a protest against the killing of four fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy, in Rameswaram on Thursday (ANI Photo)

India lodges protest after fishermen die in crash with Sri Lankan naval craft

UPDATED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:50 PM IST
  • India expressed “deep anguish at the loss of lives” and emphasised the need to deal with issues related to fishermen in a humanitarian manner.
Close
The Bengal government also appealed to people through televised advertisements to blow conch shells at 12.15 pm, the time of Bose’s birth in 1897. Both the Centre and the state have decided to organise various programmes till Bose’s 125th birthday next year. (HT FILE PHOTO).
The Bengal government also appealed to people through televised advertisements to blow conch shells at 12.15 pm, the time of Bose’s birth in 1897. Both the Centre and the state have decided to organise various programmes till Bose’s 125th birthday next year. (HT FILE PHOTO).

On eve of PM Modi’s visit, TMC, BJP face-off in Bengal over Netaji’s birthday

PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:45 PM IST
  • Despite the TMC and the Left parties’ demand that January 23 be declared a national holiday and designated after the names they had chosen, the Modi government declared on January 19 that the day will be celebrated as Parakram Diwas.
Close
WhatsApp has assured that they do not expand its ability to share user data with its parent company Facebook and is working to address the "misinformation" that was being spread about its privacy norms.(MINT_PRINT)
WhatsApp has assured that they do not expand its ability to share user data with its parent company Facebook and is working to address the "misinformation" that was being spread about its privacy norms.(MINT_PRINT)

WhatsApp thanks Parliamentary committee after meeting on data privacy

By hindustantimes.com | Edited by Nilavro Ghosh
UPDATED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:30 PM IST
The committee met the officials of Twitter and Facebook to hear their views on safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social and online news media platforms.
Close
WhatsApp had earlier this month begun asking its 2 billion users worldwide to accept an update of its privacy policy if they want to keep using the popular messaging app.(HT Photo)
WhatsApp had earlier this month begun asking its 2 billion users worldwide to accept an update of its privacy policy if they want to keep using the popular messaging app.(HT Photo)

Parliamentary panel members concerned over WhatsApp's proposed privacy policy

PTI
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:24 PM IST
WhatsApp representatives who appeared before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology said the proposed changes are aimed at bringing in more transparency and the chat and calls on platform still remain end-to-end encrypted, some of the members said.
Close
A Twitter logo is seen outside the company headquarters in San Francisco, California, US. (Reuters Photo)(REUTERS)
A Twitter logo is seen outside the company headquarters in San Francisco, California, US. (Reuters Photo)(REUTERS)

Twitter to restart giving blue ticks from January 22: All you need to know

Written by Poulomi Ghosh
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:20 PM IST
In 2017, the micro-blogging platform stopped its verification programme saying it felt arbitrary and confusing to many people.
Close
VK Sasikala was tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday(PTI FILE PHOTO)
VK Sasikala was tested positive for Covid-19 on Thursday(PTI FILE PHOTO)

Expelled AIADMK leader Sasikala tests positive for Covid-19, shifted to ICU

Written by Prashasti Singh
UPDATED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:31 PM IST
"She tested positive for Covid-19 but there are no other complications and her oxygen saturation is around 98 per cent," said Dr K Ramesh Krishna, medical superintendent at Victoria Hospital.
Close
Many session sites saw an upswing in the number of vaccinations which boosted the overall percentage.(ANI)
Many session sites saw an upswing in the number of vaccinations which boosted the overall percentage.(ANI)

Vaccination percentage rises in Bihar after govt allows on-the-spot shots

PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 10:08 PM IST
  • The government has allowed on-the-spot administration of the vaccine from among the beneficiaries already enrolled on the Covid-19 Vaccine Intelligence Network (Co-WIN) portal, if those listed at a vaccination centre for the day did not turn up.
Close
Army chief General Naravane has said the Covid-19 pandemic had exposed the fragility of global supply chains and self-reliance was the only way to insulate the military from such disruptions. (PTI PHOTO).
Army chief General Naravane has said the Covid-19 pandemic had exposed the fragility of global supply chains and self-reliance was the only way to insulate the military from such disruptions. (PTI PHOTO).

Lagging a little in military modernisation compared to adversaries: Army Chief

By HT Correspondent | Edited by Sohini Sarkar
PUBLISHED ON JAN 21, 2021 09:58 PM IST
  • General Naravane said dependence on imported military hardware could create vulnerabilities during a crisis, and self-reliance in the defence sector was a “strategic necessity”.
Close
Health workers wait at PMCH ahead of the Covid -19 vaccination drive, in Patna on January 16.(ANI)
Health workers wait at PMCH ahead of the Covid -19 vaccination drive, in Patna on January 16.(ANI)

Names of 800 healthcare workers go missing from Co-WIN portal in Bihar

UPDATED ON JAN 21, 2021 09:38 PM IST
  • The NMCH administration claimed it had sent the list of nearly 800 health care workers and 1,400 hospital staff to Patna civil surgeon last December, but names of those from the in medical college were missing from the Co-Win portal
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP