Interview: Bezwada Wilson

‘Clean your mind, not our feet’

Print edition : April 12, 2019

Bezwada Wilson. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Interview with Bezwada Wilson.

BEZWADA WILSON, Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, is steadfast in his efforts to end manual scavenging. He believes that as long as there is “caste” in the Indian psyche, the inhuman practice will continue. His advice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who washed the feet of sanitation workers in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), is to clean his mind, not their feet. Excerpts from the interview he gave Frontline:

At the end of five years of the Modi government, what is your assessment of its performance as far as manual scavenging is concerned?

After his government came to power in 2014, in his first speech from the Red Fort, Narendra Modi promised to end the practice of manual scavenging by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary on October 2, 2019. But the problem with the Prime Minister is that of ideology. He does not look at manual scavenging as an issue of caste or patriarchy or human rights violations but as a great service to others. In his book titled Karmayogi, he called it a spiritual experience for the scavengers. So if the Prime Minister thinks that manual scavenging is a spiritual experience, why would he put an end to it? The 1993 law banned it. In 2013, Parliament passed an Act which categorically states that carrying, cleaning or disposing of human excreta in any manner is a punishable crime. If Modi thinks that it is a spiritual experience, he should not have taken an oath on the Constitution stating that as Prime Minister he would protect the Act made by Parliament. There is an inherent contradiction here between what he believes in and what he is supposed to do by law. That is a disaster for the scavenging community.

Do you think the non-implementation of the Act is because of the contradiction that you mentioned?

One is the contradiction; second is that there is no political will to support this community. The community is scattered and not big enough to decide the fate of any political candidate in any constituency, and so there is no focus on them. Third, they [the government] think they can subject the community to the ideology.

Modi washed the feet of sanitation workers in Prayagraj.

I was shocked. He gave no answer for sewer deaths, rehabilitation or eradication of manual scavenging. Since he is completing his term, he came and started washing the feet of sanitation workers. He systematically manipulated the situation to divert public attention. So I said, clean your mind, not our feet. By washing the workers’ feet, does he mean to say that the work is good and the workers should continue doing it? He should shake hands with, honour and respect a person who has quit manual scavenging. That will create a new model for people to follow. Parliament has prohibited the practice. As a Prime Minister, he did something unconstitutional. The Chief Medical Officer in Ballia who washed the feet of a sanitation worker was suspended. Do we have different laws for different people in this country?

Do repeated surveys on the number of safai karmacharis serve any purpose?

Surveys are required to know how many scavengers there are in the country. Our submission to the government since the 1990s has been: Let us first identify such people and simultaneously identify the dry latrines. Either demolish the dry latrines or convert them into flush toilets. The men or women will lose whatever [occupation] they are dependent on. Provide them a meaningful alternative livelihood with dignity, not linked to the toilet. In many instances, women safai karmacharis have been rehabilitated in phenyl- or broom-making. There should be a paradigm shift so that the community or the next generation will move away from this. As [B.R.] Ambedkar said, we will all have to let go of the brooms and hold the pen. This is the vision, but the government effort has not moved in this direction.

At least six or seven surveys have been conducted so far. Each new survey contradicts the numbers from the previous one. This is a conspiracy. If the government really wants to, it is not impossible to find the number of scavengers. They are ignoring this because the people who are employed to clean the excreta come from Dalit or untouchable communities and are mostly women.

The government has a tendency to deny facts. In the 1990s, when the Ambedkar centennial celebrations took place, the government started thinking about this in a systematic way. But before that, too, in the 1960s and 1950s, there were committees and commissions that submitted their reports, such as the Malkani, Barve and Salappa committees. Great leaders such as [Karnataka Minister] B. Basava Lingappa and [Congress leader and former Chief Minister of Karnataka] Nijalingappa were also of the view that we had to complete this task as soon as possible. But they [the Central government] continue to deny the presence of scavengers and have reduced the number from 2,000 to 200. There is no rationale or logic for the denial or for accepting the smaller number. It is a rejection of truth. Working against the truth has become the lifestyle of the bureaucracy in India. That is not good for democracy. No Prime Minister or Chief Minister has taken a strong step to stop this inhuman practice. Without political will, it is impossible to resolve any problem in this country.

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

What is your assessment of the Central government’s flagship scheme, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA)? Does it solve or compound the problem?

The SBA is detrimental to the manual scavenging eradication movement. We have taken 30-35 years to establish that manual scavenging is a caste and patriarchal problem. In my childhood, our elders used to tell us that our community did this work because it was akin to serving God or because we were all illiterates or poor or our people had alcohol addiction and could not work hard. Ambedkar debunked these ideas. He said that according to the Vedas, they have to fulfil 23 deeds in their life, including cleaning and carrying human waste. That became like a weapon for me. Without Ambedkar, I would not have understood that the problem is outside and not within us. You made me a scavenger because of the caste system. I did not choose it. In Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram, Brahmins cleaned the toilets, but nobody called them bhangis [scavengers]. Whereas, I never did scavenging because my mother did not want me to touch human waste, and yet many call me a bhangi even today. So whether you do the work or not, you cannot come out of that paradigm. Ultimately, we have to fight for self-respect and dignity.

Linking this to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

From the 1990s to 2014, with great difficulty, we said that this country was divided along caste lines and we should build a fraternity as enshrined in the Constitution. All of a sudden, Narendra Modi comes on October 2, 2014, and announces the SBA. He puts on a show of sweeping here and there. Instead of eradicating manual scavenging, he generalised the age-old barbaric practice. You cleaned for 10 minutes and left. After October 2, 2014, who is cleaning in this country? The SBA has no space for the service providers or toilet cleaners. You construct and corporatise the toilets. Where is the money for the construction of the sewage system, the mechanisation for the emptying of septic pits? You have not destroyed the age-old dry latrines. They still exist in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Uttarakhand, a few parts of West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and most of Jammu and Kashmir. Without making an action plan to eradicate manual scavenging, you created an alibi, a wave, which is completely against the movement built by the women who burnt their baskets in front of the district collector’s office. Their memoranda and applications are still pending with you. Instead, you are proposing pay-and-use flush toilets for the community. The rich, in bhawans [government establishments], Parliament and courts, do not have to pay to use the toilet. But in slums, where the poor, marginalised and vulnerable groups live, you have installed paid toilets. The poor cannot even go and relieve themselves without touching their pockets. You have made another revenue stream out of this. We strongly condemn this. It is the fifth year of the SBA, you have not even touched the aspect of mechanisation.

Could you explain that?

After 2003, when we went to the Supreme Court, the States said they did not have any manual scavengers. Then in 2018, the government conducted a fresh survey and said there were 53,000 manual scavengers. So does this mean that from 2003 to 2014, there were no scavengers? In 2014, the Supreme Court said that compensation for sewer or septic tank deaths had to be counted from 1993 onwards. Across the country, no State government so far has conducted even a small survey. The Central government, too, has done nothing. They say that sanitation is a State subject. If sewage deaths are a State matter, then how come you [the Central government] announced SBA?

In five years, the Central government has not done a single thing—no mechanisation, no modernisation of the sewage system, no sanitation policy. There is no sanitation establishment in the country.

Aadhaar

How does making Aadhaar compulsory by default affect members of this community?

Every citizen has a right to privacy. But in Aadhaar, all personal information is clearly mentioned. Even after a person quits scavenging, Aadhaar retains that identity. As a sovereign citizen of a democratic republic, it is my choice whether I want an Aadhaar number or not. But Aadhaar is being made compulsory for subsidies. Your Aadhaar does not prevent any corruption. People engaged in high-level corruption have left the country with or without Aadhaar. Your Aadhaar is making niraadhar [destitute] people more vulnerable. When in Jharkhand an 11-year-old girl, Santosh Kumari, died of starvation, that was reason enough to trash Aadhaar.

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