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Bezwada Wilson’s decades-long struggle to wean away manual scavengers from lifting human excreta and to ensure them a life of dignity has borne success on both legislative and judicial fronts. Parliament banned manual scavenging with the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. And the Supreme Court—ruling on a writ petition filed by his Safai Karmchari Andolan (SKA)—directed the centre and states to implement the law and punish the violators.

However, even as India celebrates 70 years of Independence on August 15 this year, manual scavenging has still not been eradicated. But international focus and concern on the issue has been persistent thanks Wilson and SKA’s efforts. Recognition for their work finally came on July 27 when Wilson was awarded this year’s Magsaysay Award.

Wilson, born to a family of manual scavengers, chose to channelize his experience to improve the lot of his own community. In an interview to India Legal, he describes his journey, his struggle, and why he has issues with the present patriarchal, caste-driven society. Excerpts from an interview with Meha Mathur:

Personally, how would you describe your journey and what was the turning point that made you take up the cause?

I never felt we would have to struggle this long, though I knew it will be difficult. At some point, when I had been working with scavengers, I realized that if you can’t modify something you have to destroy it completely and rebuild. That realization was the turning point. By destroying I don’t mean throwing away the basket, it means destroying the whole caste system, destroying the whole patriarchy. That is the final solution.

The second turning point was gaining a clear understanding why the caste system has come. I got a clear understanding through BR Ambedkar’s teachings.

Did you feel the discrimination during your growing up years?

I studied in a scavengers’ school till the Fourth standard, I never felt anything till then. After that when we moved out, I found there was something different—say, while playing—but didn’t understand that was discrimination. Later, I realized we are not like others. We are different. People also made us feel you are lower than others. I did not understand fully and I did not want to accept that. But they did not give me an option.

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As a youngster you too would have had some aspirations in life and plans for a career. What was it?

I am not one of those who do such long-term planning. My longest planning is for three to four days. Short-term is for half an hour. As for aspirations, yes, my family wanted me to do well in studies. I was the only one in the family to get educated. Everyone pitched in to ensure that. I liked reading, so sometimes I felt I can become a librarian so that I can do the work as well as read books.

What are your areas of interest as far as reading is concerned?

No specific areas. I read everything, though more of politics and philosophy. At one stage I started reading about caste. Women studies has been an area that got me interested early on. Women’s issues in the 1980s made me understand there’s something wrong. I used to attend meetings related to struggles faced by women.

But I will not leave any page on a newspaper unread—even cooking, sports, business, share market, income tax. Basically I want to know everything.

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What have been the major challenges in your journey to ensure respect and dignity for manual scavengers? What has been the response of civic bodies, government representatives and politicians to your drive?

The main problem is that there is no political will. One or two leaders will show interest but that’s it. Most are in denial mode, as far as this issue is concerned—including my own people.

My family too came to know about my work later. They had protected me from doing that work and even interacting with them (people of his community). They thought I am going to college. I used to listen keenly to people’s problem. When I observed what they were going through, I understood their pain. My family realized “something wrong” was going on. They started questioning me, asking me why are you talking to them. But gradually my mother understood. Then she started talking to me about this issue, and narrated many stories of caste prejudice.

What were your family’s thoughts on manual scavenging? Were they resigned to their lot? Did your mother also want to come out of it?

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My mother was very powerful. I have never seen such a powerful woman. She was also very sharp and had a very powerful way of expressing herself. But she told me you should not do this work at any cost—that you must study instead.

I can’t even explain the role of my family in my life. That much love and protection very few will get in this world. I never felt there was something lacking. I am the youngest in the family. My elder brothers (one is 70, the other is 60, and sister is around 65) did not get educated. I am the only educated one.

Do you see any change in the attitude of people in the country in the last two decades, since you began your struggle?

Caste discrimination goes away very slowly. It’s not like other rapid changes.

Is it a matter of convenience that caste, discrimination and scavenging continue?

Yes, they get cheap labor and the services… selfish motives are there. Society is structured in such a way that one layer can exploit the other layer as a matter of privilege. You don’t even realize you are exploiting. You feel you are entitled to have all those things in life.

How do the manual scavengers perceive their lot? What are their aspirations?

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Scavengers don’t come to SKA. We go and identify them, which is also very difficult. They don’t even come to the fore. We have 6,000 volunteers and many full-time team members who go out to identify these people. They are instrumental in this whole movement.

We don’t ask them to stop scavenging. We have no training material, we don’t print any material. We go, develop rapport and discuss problems. We explain why we are approaching them. We narrate our own stories— who am I; what happened to me; how I got discriminated against in school; what is happening in other places. That’s how they open up. Someone would say: “My daughter faced similar humiliation last week. She came back crying.” Then we explain that it’s because of the work we are doing.

Their question is what work we will do if we give up this profession? But we tell them we don’t know the answer. The government has its schemes. But we don’t know if you will get it or not. You will have to fight for that. It might take six months or even two years. Or maybe nothing. But you will nevertheless have to decide.

Slowly they start participating in rallies. Initially, some hesitate, but get inspired when others of their own group come back and narrate to them positive things.

You don’t offer any education or skill development alternative?

We don’t do it. It’s the government which should. We guide them where the skill development centres are. The government has total responsibility to protect and safeguard and provide all facilities. It has the sole responsibility to provide these services. Unfortunately, the government is moving away from the responsibility and other players are coming in. They should not replace the government.

How will the Magsaysay help you in the fight for dignity of manual scavengers?

Our demands are very clear and our fight is a democratic fight. But it has not been heard by everybody. This award may strengthen that democratic voice.

It’s now 23 years since manual scavenging and dry latrines were banned by an act of parliament. What is the basic impediment to implementing the law?

As I said, there is no political will. Officers who are kings now have casteist mindset and prejudices. They think if a scavenger is cleaning toilet what is wrong with it.

I read No Full stops in India by Mark Tully. There are no full stops here too. Caste is in our minds, and we have to take it away completely. We must undergo a surgery to eradicate caste and patriarchy.

Do you think that technological advancement and investment in technology in this basic need of our society would help in the improvement of the condition of scavengers? And why are we not investing in technology?

It’s our casteist mindset among our scientists…. See, when we went to the court against manual scavenging (Safai Karmchari Andolan & Ors vs Union of India & Ors), many asked us, what is the solution? I was petitioner No. 1, along with me were seven scavengers. The court should ask the government to give the answer. Instead, the court is asking us, do you have any solution for the problem? Is there any technology? Why?

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After so many years of Independence, you ask a safai karmchari, do we have a solution? Why? We clean the shit, so you are asking for a solution from us! I am questioning the question you impose on me. Why can’t you think of it?

We are talking of bullet trains and smart cities, we want to go to Mars, but what about people’s needs? We don’t have the knowledge about sanitation and how human excreta will get decomposed. No scientist thinks about it.

I, love my country, I have confidence in my scientists. Today, we have capacity to produce cryogenic rockets and ballistic missiles. So why can’t we produce a septic tank cleaning machine?

Put a break on other things for some time and first meet the needs of the people, not just for the sake of manual scavengers, but every individual. I am saying this not because I belong to that community, but because it’s a need for every human, and you can’t ignore it.

Are you satisfied with the legal reforms so far? What are your further expectations on the legal front?

Law, as Ambedkar said, can’t be implemented on its own. It requires sensitized people. It requires belief in equality. And that is still not there. No police station is ready to take up a case, no judge is there to punish any person. Why?

Which states are not proactive in eradicating manual scavenging?

None of the states. But the problem is more in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir.

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Is manual scavenging specific to Indian society? Why so? Are our neighboring countries also grappling with this problem?

It’s there in other countries too, including Nepal and Bangladesh. But it is rampant only in India. We aim to be a superpower, whereas we should aim for a society where no human being has to clean someone’s shit. 

All pictures: Anil Shakya

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