When he was just out of school he was appalled and disgusted to see workers doing manual scavenging of human excreta from dry latrines. When he conveyed his disgust to his parents they revealed that they were also doing the same job. It was shocking for him to know that he belonged to a”thotti” (manual scavenger) family. He contemplated suicide, but somehow decided to live on.
That day in 1986 changed his life, and saw the beginning of a movement that will liberate lakhs of manual scavengers all over India. It will also result in him, Bezwada Wilson, getting the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for 2016.
Manual scavenging is considered one of the lowest, polluted and most degrading occupations. The caste system dictates that those born into a particular Dalit sub-caste should engage in manual scavenging, and should remain doing so throughout their lives thereby denying them the right to lead a dignified life. Manual scavenging is thus the most extreme manifestation of caste discrimination, that is, discrimination based on work and descent.
“Everything is messed up. People say we are unclean, but who has made us unclean? We are cleaners; the person shitting in a dry latrine is the dirty person,” he said. “For thousands of years we have been told we are dirty. Now people are shouting back, ‘No, we are not dirty’.”
Bezwada Wilson was from a Dalit Christian family, originally from Andhra Pradesh. Their family moved to Kolar in Karnataka as most of them were employed by the government owned Kolar Gold Mines as cleaning staff.
The people in his colony were employed by Bharat Gold Mines Public Ltd. Kolar had India’s first labour union for the scavengers, but the Marxists just wanted to use them to have a bucket of human excreta strewn outside the houses of those who didn’t strike. The excreta had to be later cleared by the same scavengers.
The manual scavengers did not want to make it an issue. Bezwada got someone to write a letter to the Bharat Mines officials. The reply denied the existence of dry latrines. He sent them pictures, and dispatched copies of the pictures to the prime minister and all Dalit members of parliament. In 1993, thanks to international pressure, India had outlawed manual scavenging. The Centre got the Bharat Mines to demolish them. The manual scavengers were taken into other jobs.
Wilson then moved to Andhra, where he found that municipal corporations had employed 8,340 karmacharis in 16,380 community latrines in the state. The state government actually employed people to do something that had been declared illegal. This is a likely true even today of the Indian Railways and some municipal corporations in a few states.
Lobbying with Dalit MLAs in Andhra, Bezwada got the government to demolish most of them. Bezwada’s Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) went on a 45-day-long yatra in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, demolishing dry latrines that the state government said didn’t exist.
At the Nizamabad court complex, the court intervened when they were demolishing the toilet. Wilson got the court to order stopping the demolition in writing, and then wrote to the Supreme Court asking how a local court could violate the law. The Supreme Court had it demolished in 24 hours.
Self-taught in English, fighting caste with humour, Wilson was meant to become part of the Christian clergy, but destiny had something else for him. A follower of Ambedkar, Wilson rebuffed Christian clergy and politicians alike who tried to use him.
A public interest litigation (PIL) he filed in the Supreme Court, naming all the States, Union Territories, and relevant government departments as violators of the 1993 Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act, produced positive results. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in his favour demanding that all States ban manual scavenging and even fixed a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh for families of scavengers who had died on the job.
Wilson has now moved to making lives better for those who work to clean sewage lines and septic tanks, often leading to deaths. With determination, humour and all-round goodwill, there is little doubt he will succeed.
Fifty years old, Bezwada Wilson has spent 32 years on his crusade, leading not only with a sense of moral outrage but also with remarkable skills in mass organizing, and working within India’s complex legal system. SKA has grown into a network of 7,000 members in 500 districts across the country. Of the estimated 600,000 scavengers in India, SKA has liberated around 300,000. While Bezwada has placed at the core of his work the dalits’ self-emancipation, he stresses that manual scavenging is not a sectarian problem: “You are addressing all members of society, because no human being should be subjected to this inhuman practice.” Society itself has to be transformed.
In electing Bezwada Wilson to receive the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes 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.
This is what Bezwada Wilson had to say after getting the award:
This award is a recognition of the struggle of millions of manual scavenger women who carried night soil on their heads. This is a recognition of their fight for dignity and justice. This award will, I think, help the world to understand more about this issue. The is one of the biggest challenges that needs to be addressed by our civilised society. As a result of the award, our struggle is going to increase in coming days. But we hope that our voices will grow stronger. We finally need to achieve Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar’s dream of the elimination of caste.
Our movement to eradicate manual scavenging is basically a movement to break the shackles of caste. It directly questions patriarchy and caste based discrimination. It exposes the whole sanitation system, which is terribly casteist. In one line, I can say that because of the lack of political will and casteist mindsets, manual scavenging still exists. The system wants a particular community to clean its shit. They don’t want to change, but we are forcing them to bring the desired change.
In an oppressive system change will not come because of the change of heart of the oppressor. It will come only when sustained pressure make it impossible to continue the status quo. Bezwada Wilson has shown us by example how to bring about the desired change.