By Abhimanyu Singh:
Last year in March, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark verdict concerning the plight of manual scavengers in the country.
Acting on a writ petition filed by the Safai Karmachari Andolan demanding stricter enforcement of the 1993 Act prohibiting manual scavenging, the apex Court issued strict orders favouring the same. It recognised that the number of dry latrines –which require manual scavenging – had increased despite the law being in force for over twenty years and stood at 96 lakhs. It also noted that more than five lakh people, with 95% Dalits, were still working as manual scavengers.
Bezwada Wilson is the National Convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation that has been working for the eradication of manual scavenging for many years. Wilson was involved in drafting the new law against the practice in 2013 and is currently on the committee that monitors its implementation, which was set up following the SC judgment.
Currently, the SKA is involved in conducting the Bhim Yatra, which is an awareness campaign about the practice of manual scavenging. It started from Dibrugarh, Assam on 11 December and will culminate in Delhi on 13 April, after 125 days, to coincide with the 125th birth anniversary of B. R. Ambedkar.
Youth Ki Awaaz caught up with him at the East Patel Nagar office of his organisation to speak about the Yatra as well as related issues.
Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
Abhimanyu Singh (AS): How has your journey been?
Bezwada Wilson (BW): When we started, it was not an organisation. All we had was a conviction that we cannot bear with this. Enough. So, what to do? Don’t know. How to do? Don’t know. Where? Pata Nahin. There was a kind of a vacuum. But we know the goal. That is very clear. And it is non-negotiable.
AS: How far have you succeeded in your goal, you’d say, in your own assessment?
BW: I really can’t make any kind of statement on the success…
AS: Maybe that’s not the right word. Tell me then what has been the…
BW: Impact… See, even now when I go and ask members of my community, what work are you doing, they say, our work, hamara kaam (manual scavenging). When I question them further, about what do they mean by that, they say, “achcha, aap Delhi se aa ke hamara kaam bhul gaye hain kya?” (have you forgotten what our work is following your stay in Delhi?) There is, in general, a kind of internalisation of this whole (practice and its justification given by the upper-castes).
AS: You mean to say they have accepted their lot?
BW: Yes, (they think) nothing in the world is left for us. We have come across thousands and lakhs of example, where people tried to come out of it and they failed. Even my father fought against it and failed. The success stories are very less. My eldest brother also worked for 18 to 19 years as a scavenger.
It is not easy to fight against even the supervisor, who is the smallest cog in the wheel. If anyone dares to speak on the behalf of others, the supervisor will say, “achcha, you have become a leader now?” and he will suspend that scavenger (who spoke up) for five days. Such stories were told to us from childhood.
There is no space for rebellion; the idea also will never come to your mind. You are made to accept the situation. If someone wants to take up another profession and goes elsewhere, starts working as a mason, and someone asks him which community he is from, he can either lie or run away from there. If his actual caste is revealed, he will get beaten up.
Why I am sharing this with you today is because it is not that we have totally accepted this is ours. We have never seen anything else as a vocation. When I told my parents that this is wrong (manual scavenging) and should be stopped, they said I was mad and asked me not to talk like that. We are educating you, sending you to college, you focus on that and don’t get diverted; otherwise, your life will be ruined, they said. They said they had invested in my education with great difficulty. From my childhood, they made sure to keep me away from my locality, my community, as much as possible.
All the Vedas say what is written in them will occur. That’s what my community believes.
AS: You mean there is a passive acceptance, coupled with fear of retribution which makes it a vicious cycle?
BW: Yes. Like when you asked about the success we have achieved, I see it like this: you say I am a slave and I can only do this work. I say I won’t do it. That’s my success.
AS: So a change in the mind-set would be actual success?
BW: (laughs) Yes. If I refuse to take the broom in my hand, and not do this, then that is my success. Like thousands and lakhs in the country are doing. Our people have started thinking – “nahin, yeh hamara kaam kaise ho sakta hai?” (No, how can this be our work?) Many people from our community, who have no idea about any ideology, or Ambedkar, have burnt the baskets (in which human feces is picked) at Jantar Mantar, (New Delhi).
The next day, they don’t know what to do. What I mean to say is, the community is eager to come out of this.
The simple point is: how can any human being be happy carrying the faeces and urine of another human being? This does not require much intellectual rigour to understand. I take my inspiration from them. Nobody is happy.
(I remember) I met an old lady once. I was accompanying a foreign journalist and he asked her how she felt when she cleaned shit. Normally, they talk like that no? So I asked her in the local language the same question. She was not answering. I asked three, four, five times. And that man had come from foreign na, he wanted exactly that answer. He forced me to ask her repeatedly. Then she looked at me and said – arre, kya baat hai? Dimaag kahan hai? Kaise soch sakte hain koi aisa kaam kar ke khush ho sakte hain? (hey, what’s the matter? Have you lost your mind? How can you think someone will be happy doing this?)
Till that day, although I had already been working in the field for five to six years, I never understood the extent of the anger. She must have thought of me as a fool, or a useless fellow. I cannot forget her face. Since then, I have not had the courage to ask this question to anyone and there is no need to ask also. I understood. So, she is my inspiration.
AS: Could you tell me how you started your activism in this field?
BW: I was born and brought up in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), Karnataka. It is a gold mining township. They constructed big dry latrines there during the British regime. At that time, dry latrines were the only form of toilets. Many people migrated from Andhra to clean them. My forefathers also, they migrated like that and started working there.
Around 1982, I wrote a letter to the Managing Director of KGF, that this system is prevalent here. So he wrote back to me that this system is in place for the last 140 years and that they planned to convert it to flush toilets. (But it wasn’t happening). Following that, I wrote to the Prime Minister. The press came to know of it and they covered the story. Finally, they demolished the dry toilets. That was my first experience of direct action.
Following that, I moved to other states in South India. I would sleep at bus-stops during the night and start my work in the morning in whichever town I happened to be, (by coordinating with members of my community).
By early 90’s, people began to recognize the work I was doing and the movement that had been created as a result (The SKA took shape in 1994).
AS: What do you have say about Mr. Modi calling the practice a religious duty?
BW: He has said that in the past also. In his book, Karmayog, he had said that it was a spiritual experience. I felt very angry when I heard that. Many press reporters also came to me that day (when reports about his book were published).
How can it be a spiritual experience to lift someone’s excreta with your own hands? A PM, for that matter any human being, should not talk like this. He must understand that there are people who are coming out and burning their baskets. It is a caste-based occupation imposed on us. It is violence on us. Some people said make him do manual scavenging to make him understand what it was like. I said I don’t wish it on Narendra Modi even because it is so cruel. I don’t know if he is innocent or arrogant in making this statement but I don’t want to ask him.
There are different ideologies. One is the Ambedkarite ideology and another is this.
Till 1990, I did not know about Ambedkar. Around 1989-90, we were celebrating his birth centenary. I had gone to Andhra Pradesh for a bicycle rally. Many people came. It lasted for 40 to 60 days. It was then that I understood that he was the person who had fought for our rights. Otherwise, I also felt that Gandhi was our leader and he was the father-figure. But once I started to read him (Gandhi), I realised that Gandhi had said that manual scavenging was similar to a mother cleaning the bottom of her child. This is akin to glorifying the problem. Thereby you can continue that. He also said that a scavenger is the most important person in the society. But he did not say that what was more important was their liberation. He had seen this as an essential service.
However, Ambedkar asked the Dalits not to eat dead animals, carry carcasses and do dirty jobs (like manual scavenging). When I read that, I jumped (with joy).. I was like, what a thing he has said! I felt I was starting this movement but that was not true. The journey had already begun. We are just a part of it, by joining the journey which started very long back by Ambedkar.
It was only by reading Ambedkar that we felt (the taste of) freedom.
AS: Go on…
BW: In 1993, the new law against manual scavenging was passed. Following that, we started to work on its implementation. It taught us what lacunae it contained. Not a single case was filed under the Act from ’93 to 2000. In 2003, we approached the Supreme Court which asked for state-wise data. Meanwhile, we had started to expand to other states, collecting data, networking with other Dalit organisations, civil society organisations, individuals, people from other castes.
But it was only by approaching the SC that we saw the true colours of the State. All the states went in a denial mode.
In 2006 we decided to put an end to the practice by 2010. We demolished dry latrines in states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan etc.
AS: The railway still continues with the practice…
BW: They are fighting an on-going case regarding it in Delhi High Court.
AS: Why do you call it a patriarchal issue?
BW: Because 98% of scavengers are women. Within Dalits also, patriarchy operates very, very strongly. We don’t understand, we don’t recognize, and we don’t want to talk about it much. But this is wrong and extreme. This means that within the family also there is discrimination. Otherwise, why are only girls doing this?
AS: Tell us about your work on preventing the deaths of sewage workers.
BW: We started to look into the issue starting 2010. We realised that the numbers were huge. We gave that information to the Supreme Court. The Court in its (2014) judgment said that in each case of death Rs. 10 lakh should be paid as compensation. We looked up the deaths that had occurred from 1993 onward and found that over 1000 workers had died like that.
But we also realised that in this way, we are waiting for someone to die and then get his family compensation. We decided that we have to stop the killings first.
For that, we felt the need for a new Yatra, so we could make people aware about the new Act, the new Supreme Court judgment, to tell them about the Rs. 10 lakh compensation, and to have the people tell the government that more than the compensation, they need a chance to live.
More sewage deaths have happened in India since Independence, than in any other way, including deaths by cyclones etc. But the media never highlights it.
We also felt that this is the 125th anniversary of Ambedkar’s birth and without adopting his ideas, this caste will not be liberated. So we want to spread his ideas though this rally.
Institutions like the Railway and states like UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, and Uttarakhand are the states, followed by Maharashtra, where the practice of manual scavenging still continues. While one hopes that the Bhim Yatra would create more awareness about the issue, it is very clear that the goal of complete eradication of manual scavenging and the liberation and rehabilitation of manual scavengers would remain a pipe dream unless the state and Central governments took the matter more seriously. It is also obvious that without addressing the heart of the issue, which is essentially a matter related to caste, the Swachch Bharat campaign, a pet project of the Prime Minister, would remain an entirely superficial and cosmetic exercise, leading to zero substantial change on the ground.