‘The focus has to be on the safai karamchari women’

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Bezwada Wilson: "The Prime Minister has to put a system in place and make sure that every time a toilet is constructed, a Dalit is not called to clean it." Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Interview with Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan and recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his work for manual scavengers.

MURAD NAGAR lies some 30 kilometres to the east of Delhi in western Uttar Pradesh. Once a sleepy hamlet dependent on sugarcane cultivation, Murad Nagar is now a bustling township with a popular multiplex, a mall with an impressive footfall and mushrooming private medical and engineering colleges. The fruits of liberalisation have percolated downwards. The township’s once brick-lined roads have today been replaced with metalled roads. Its once ubiquitous tempos, which residents used for transport, have given way to sedans and SUVs. What, unfortunately, has not changed is the existence of dry toilets. Every morning, in the interiors of Murad Nagar, it is common to see women walking with a wicker basket on their hip, a broom in hand and a cloth covering the face, leaving only the eyes exposed. By afternoon, the same women walk back with the baskets full of human excreta placed on their heads.

The story is repeated in Masuri, Ghaziabad district, Uttar Pradesh. Here, most people do not get piped water, though they can have a bottle or a can of a soft drink delivered at home. For defecation, the residents use either the vast green fields in the vicinity or the dry latrines constructed outside their houses. Electricity is but an erratic visitor, not so the ubiquitous manual scavenger. Yes, more than a couple of years after the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, manual scavengers are a reality across the country, though admittedly more frequently seen in some parts than in others. Bezwada Wilson has been campaigning hard for 35 years demanding that this abominable practice be stopped.

Wilson is the national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan and was chosen as one of the recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award 2016 for “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity”. As his citation reads: “Manual scavenging is blight on humanity in India. Consigned by structural inequality to the Dalits, India’s ‘untouchables’, manual scavenging is the work of removing by hand human excrement from dry latrines and carrying on the head the baskets of excrement to designated disposal sites. A hereditary occupation, manual scavenging involves 180,000 Dalit households cleaning the 790,000 public and private dry latrines across India; 98 per cent of scavengers are meagrely paid women and girls. While the Constitution and other laws prohibit dry latrines and the employment of manual scavengers, these have not been strictly enforced since the government itself is the biggest violator.”

Wilson himself hails from a family of scavengers in Karnataka and is a first-generation learner. His work began with teaching the children of workers at the Kolar Gold Fields mines. His enquiries with the parents of his students about why they could not send their children to school or buy them books led him to make a discovery about his past. When he shared his experience of speaking to his students’ parents with his parents, he learned that they too were once employed as manual scavengers. It was a discovery that changed the course of his life and brought about a revolution in the lives of thousands of women, who, inspired by Wilson, gave up their traditional occupation despite their initial reservations about doing so.

Polite to a fault, Wilson says that the award rather than raising him to the pantheon of Dalit heroes should mean greater awareness about the socio-economic changes he is trying to usher in. The focus, he insists, has to be on those anonymous women who carry human waste on their heads every morning so that the so-called elite can continue with their lives. It is they who deserve a better fate, he contends. “What will I do with the award? I am a humble man. I stay here only. I eat and clean here and go on with my life,” says Wilson, sitting with the staff of the Safai Karamchari Andolan in New Delhi. “The practice continues to this day in parts of outer Delhi, U.P., Bihar. It has to end. It is inhuman,” he adds passionately. He spoke to Frontline regarding the award and the larger issue of the emancipation of Dalits. Excerpts:

How do you think the Ramon Magsaysay Award will help the socio-economic movement you started for the emancipation of manual scavengers?

I never thought the award would help the movement as such. But after the award, I feel it is different. Now there is greater awareness. I don’t need to say there are scavengers any more. I no longer have to write the introduction to our book. I don’t have to look for a publisher anymore. The actual chapters, the real struggle, will continue.

I said no to the Padma award; I do not know which Padma award, whether it was the Padma Shri or the Padma Bhushan. They asked me to apply. I said no, I don’t want it. On the one side, you make our people clean excreta. On the other side, you want to honour me. What do you want to honour me for? I cannot live with this dichotomy. I take the side of my people because they are struggling and theirs is a democratic struggle. The government has to accept that first. This practice of manual scavenging is there; it is a mistake and has to be rectified. It is an organised disorganised industry. Through the 2013 Act, it is called historical mistake. After 1993 [when the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed], you have not punished even a single person across the country. For that historical mistake, either the Prime Minister or the President must apologise. For everybody you apologise; for manual scavengers you do not. Then you can say that we want to honour you; then the honour will go to women scavengers. When [the Ramon] Magsaysay [Award Foundation] called me, I said no, I do not want it. In any movement, the focus has to be on people, the safai karamchari women. With an award, the focus will shift to a personality. The struggle is theirs, the fight is theirs, it is not me. They burnt their baskets with no alternative source of income. Today the movement’s focus will shift. Today my struggle is to retain the focus; the movement should not become personality oriented. The people who are throwing away their baskets should be honoured, not me. Today the focus is shifting to the individual who is there with them. I request you, please do not lose your focus. My struggle has to be on the fight, on the women, on the children, on the families involved in the manual cleaning of excreta. Then there are those who have given life and resources; they should be honoured too. I am part of the movement. I am not so modest. I am also part of them. It is an ideological, genuine understanding of people’s movement. Ours is a people-oriented movement. I do not want to hog the limelight. I am struggling to keep it that way.

Things do not seem to have improved since the Supreme Court judgment in 2013.

The 2013 Supreme Court judgment is more than enough to eradicate manual scavenging. But nobody cares, State governments, the Central government, the railways, defence, nobody. They make laws and forget about implementation. There is never any evaluation whether it is implemented or not. The law says that you have to punish the violator with one year’s imprisonment. But the problem is you have not punished even one person in 23 years. The governments and their machinery put all their effort into proving that the data that the Safai Karamchari Andolan has put together are false. They discard the truth. The problem is the government is in denial mode. When the government denies there is any dry toilet, you are ultimately denying a person his identity. You do not want to see them; you do not want to count them. You ask any government for data on safai karamcharis, they have no data of their own. They rely on one movement. Yet you do not count them as citizens because citizens have their rights. They are not invisible; you are making them invisible. Why can you not have data of your own? You count them as voters but not as persons or as citizens.

Do conversions help considering that caste follows Indians whichever religion they might adopt?

Conversion is also one way. Babasaheb Ambedkar also did the same to overcome caste bondage. But even after conversion, people continue with the same practice. Gradually, they come out of it. There are Muslims who are scavengers, there are Christians. After conversion there is no religious endorsement for the practice. No church or mosque will say that you are supposed to do that. Here they will say according to varna system it is your duty. It is karma. We are not talking of one thing: why should I carry your excreta in the buckets? Why should I carry the dead cow? As long as she is alive, she is your mother; when she is dead, she is our responsibility. If she is your mother, you clean her. If I have nothing to eat and I eat beef, they will kill me.

You cannot decide when is she your mother and when is it our responsibility to clean up. I eat beef. I enjoy it. I felt so sick when they killed [Mohammad] Akhlaq. All of a sudden you come and kill, saying you eat beef. Somebody is eating something. You cannot kill somebody for that. Tomorrow you will say do not eat this vegetable, onion or garlic. I can also spin stories. You cannot run society on personal whims. Society, that is India, we are all living in. You cannot decide what others should eat, what they should wear.

Truth is for an individual. You cannot force your faith on me. Do not make religion so small.

You have been critical of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Is there not a touch of irony to it?

There is a link between sanitation and caste. Within sanitation, manual scavengers, there is patriarchy. Women do it. This is the reason for the continuation of manual scavenging. Narayana Samhita says that Dalits have to clean human excreta, clear dead bodies, remove carcasses. By doing this, you are doing your dharma. But the Safai Karamchari Andolan said nothing doing. Ultimately, it is a mockery of religion. We will never believe this. Caste is the root cause; we realised this because of Dr Ambedkar. After Ambedkar we know the truth. We shut their mouth. When they said cow is like a mother, we said if that is so, take her home. We countered all their arguments. Demolishing latrines is not just demolition of toilets but demolition of an ideology, demolition of fundamentalism.

On October 2, 2014, [Narendra] Modi came up with Swachh Bharat. For two minutes, he picked up a broom, photos were taken, and he went away. But all those who cleared faeces for 5,000 years were not consulted. Even the name of the movement comes from the concept of pure and pollution in the caste system. Why could they not call the movement Saaf Karo Bharat? It cannot be swachh. You who leave the dirt pilot Swachh Bharat. We who clean the dirt are unclean. He came for two minutes, but who is cleaning since October 2, 2014, dear Prime Minister? Is it not the safari karamcharis? Why weren’t their names even mentioned?

Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, 12 crore toilets have to be constructed.

Already there are toilets with septic tanks. From 1993, 1,370 people have died while cleaning septic tanks. More people have died because of septic tanks than terrorism. You talk of terrorism, arouse emotions, allocate defence budget there, you ignore this reality. You are going to set up 12 crore toilets by 2019, but you have no technology, not even a pipe, to empty the tanks. Who will clean the toilets? How many more people will die? If you add another 12 crore toilets, how many more Dalits will die? Stop killing us in the sewer lines and come up with a complete action plan. These are political murders. I have a right to life. You come with a jhadoo [broom], a Minister comes with a broom and removes a few leaves and photographs are taken. Cleanliness does not come with a jhadoo. First, clean your brains and get rid of your prejudices; your thoughts have to be cleaned. It is easy to take a selfie.

You oppose dry latrines too. What then is the solution? More toilets are widely considered to be a step towards ending open defecation and improving sanitation.

Of course, we have to get rid of open defecation. But first we have to put a system in place whereby the age-old exploitation of manual scavengers does not continue. Remember, people have left the practice even when they had no other source of income. The Prime Minister has to put a system in place and make sure that every time a toilet is constructed, a Dalit is not called to clean it. But it is not likely to happen. They take manual scavengers for granted. Why can they not ban manual cleaning of sewers? No government department is coming forward to help. Even the railways will take until 2019 to build bio-toilets to eliminate the manual cleaning of excreta on the tracks. Does that mean nothing will change until then?

What about Dalit women and the problems they face during pregnancy because of the profession? So many children are born with abnormalities.

We do not have data or analyses. But there are many such cases. For 35 years, people come to me for data, but we are too involved at the ground level to compile statistics. But people die because of this pollution. Deformities are more; skin infections are common owing to constant exposure to human excreta. Many die young. Some 40-year-olds look like they are 70. They do not live long enough to receive pension when some government offers a token amount. That is the tragedy.

Is manual scavenging largely confined to north India?

Yes, to an extent that is true. There are pockets in Maharashtra, but it is mainly prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, even Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. But U.P. is easily the worst. However, septic tanks are everywhere—in Karnataka, in Tamil Nadu, in Andhra Pradesh. Everywhere no attempt is made to emancipate Dalits. Their life revolves around a basket, a bucket, a tin plate.