New Delhi: Known as a crusader for the cause of manual scavenging, 53-year-old Bezwada Wilson was born in the family of manual scavengers. He understood the evil of caste discrimination and problems involved in manual scavenging at a very young age. He started his mission of eradicating manual scavenging when he was only 17 years old. While talking to NDTV about his journey and fight against manual scavenging, he said,
The practice of manual scavenging is most barbaric and dehumanising practice known in human history. It is the practice of cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta from dry latrines, sewers, and septic tanks.
He formed Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) in the early 1990s with an aim to completely eradicate manual scavenging from India. SKA has liberated more than one lakh scavengers till now and helped them to move on to other professions by helping them form the Sewerage Workers’ Associations and self-help groups.
Mr. Wilson who has dedicated his life to the liberation of manual scavengers from brutal working conditions and the eradication of the degrading practice of manual scavenging was honoured with Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016 for ‘reclaiming the human dignity of Dalits’. According to him, caste discrimination is the biggest reason for the practice being widely prevalent. He is determined to not rest till manual scavenging is eliminated completely from the country. He said,
Today when the prime minister picks up a broom for a show, everybody participates but in reality from manual scavenging to entering the septic tanks to picking up garbage, cleaning has been a job traditionally and exclusively assigned to the Dalit community especially to the people belonging to the ‘Balmiki’ community.
Childhood Experiences Made Mr. Wilson Aware Of Caste Discrimination And Patriarchy Deeply Rooted In The Society
While Mr. Wilson was spared the labour and was given a chance to pursue higher studies, the profession followed by his parents and elder brother and caste haunted his life as a child and as a teenager. Mr. Wilson was discriminated against and looked down upon as a child. He recalls,
I was laughed at by other students in my school. As I grew up, I started to understand why I was being laughed at. I realised that we were different.
After graduating from school Mr. Wilson approached the Employment Exchange Office seeking a job where he was told that he would be given the job of a sanitation worker because of his caste. Infuriated by this, he decided to go to the people in his region and motivate them to rebel against this caste-imposed occupation. He said,
I told them that this is inhuman, no one should do this. Have courage and leave this work.
This discrimination along with the state of the working condition of the people of his community filled a lot of anger in him, shared Mr. Wilson. He said,
I wanted to die as I was not able to bear what was going on around me. But I decided to channalise the anger to kill the practice of manual scavenging itself. It was painful for me to see women working through the night soil with their bare hands and carrying it on their heads and shoulder. This even made them vulnerable to various skin and stomach related diseases.
Mr. Wilson asserted that while growing up, he realised that not just caste inequalities but also patriarchy is a problem which needs to be destroyed. He said that due to patriarchy, Dalit women face multiple marginalisations- of being a woman, financially poor and of being from a “lower” caste.
How Big Is The Problem Of Manual Scavenging In India
The practice was made unlawful way back in 1993 and thus ideally, till now it should have ceased to exist and should have become a part of a forgettable history. However, the practice prohibited under The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, is very much prevalent in every state across the country.
Manual scavenging is still the primary occupation of over 1,80,000 Dalit families, according to the 2011 census data. The Census also reports the existence of over 26 lakh (26,06,278) insanitary latrines in the country.
According to a senior official from National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) which is the implementing agency for the scheme on rehabilitation of manual scavengers,
Most of the insanitary latrines have been converted into sanitary latrines under Swachh Bharat Mission implemented by the Ministries of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Housing and Urban Affairs.
The official further said that till now a total of 54,130 manual scavengers have been identified across the country with maximum number in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.
Mr. Wilson says that the actual number of manual scavengers is much higher than the figures provided by the government body. As per him, more than 2.6 lakh women are involved in dry latrine cleaning, around 7.7 lakh men are involved in cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
On enquiring about the massive gaps between the data provided by the central government and SKA, NSKFDC official claimed that manual scavengers do not reveal themselves to the authorities because of the social stigma attached to their job. However, as per Mr. Wilson, the claim made by the official is not true. He said that people do come forward in large numbers and fill the self-declaration form but most these forms get rejected by the district authorities. He said,
This can be understood with an example, when a woman comes and tell the authority that she is cleaning says six toilets in the village but she is also required to put in the names and addresses of the toilet owners. When the authority goes to the household to validate the information the household refuse to accept that the women clean their toilets fearing actions from the authority for employing manual scavengers as it is prohibited in the country.
As per the data collated by SKA, about 1,760 people have died because of manual scavenging in the past 20 years. Mr. Wilson said,
The Supreme Court ordered compensation of Rs 10 lakh for each person killed in septic tanks and sewer lines. But it did not fix responsibility. It did not say those responsible for the deaths will go to jail. So when deaths occur inside the sewer or septic tank, who is responsible for it? These deaths need to be treated as murder and the guilty must be convicted under the 2013 Act as well as under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
He further highlighted that in this year itself within the seven months, there have been more than 90 manual scavenging deaths across the country. He asks,
As a human being how can we ask another human being to go inside sewer to clean it.
Rajesh Singh, a 55-year-old manual scavenger who has been in the family occupation of manual scavenging since last 20 years says that for him, this job has become a trap from where he cannot even think of coming out. When NDTV met Rajesh he was cleaning a private sewer in Delhi’s Rohini Sector 4. As per him, he was already inside the drain for more than an hour without any safety gears. We noticed that he was drunk. On being asked about this habit, he said,
We cannot work without intoxicating ourselves. It is not a habit. We need it to be able to manage to stand in the mucK and be surrounded by stench while cleaning.
He said that being the primary breadwinner for a family of five, and due lack of any other skill he has not attempted to take the risk of leaving this work even though he has developed terrible eczema. However, he says that if given an opportunity to change his source of livelihood, he would gladly take it. He said,
We have never been approached by any government official with any information regarding rehabilitation programmes. We are not even aware that there are any such programmes.
When NDTV asked the local resident who hired Rajesh to clean the drain, she said that she has been living in the colony with her son and husband since past for six years on rent and each year during the rainy season, the drains get choked. Despite submitting complaints to Delhi Jal Board and Municipal Corporation multiple times, they did not receive any response. She said,
We have no choice but to ask Rajesh and his friends to clean the drains. To get the bigger drain clean, we collect money and call them. To get our own drain un-choked, we call them on our own.
While meeting the manual scavengers working in Rohini sector 4, NDTV came across 32-year-old Amit Sarsar, who worked as a manual scavenger for six years and is now an owner of small meat stall. According to him, transition from a manual scavenger to a business owner brought him a sense of pride and empowerment. However, he also said that this transition was not an easy one for him.
Untouchability was the biggest challenge I faced. The stigma attached to my previous work acted as a hindrance. I remember how I used to go from shop to shop asking for work. It was only with the help of SKA that I could afford my own kiosk. I now cook and sell non-vegetarian food. Cooking has always been my interest. I am happy I left the occupation of manual scavenger which I took up only because that is what my family has been involved in.
A resident of Rohini Sector 3, Amit, who is not married yet, earns about Rs. 600 daily from his meat stall and is saving for his wedding. He shares that while initially, people only from his community used to buy food from his stall, now he gets a few customers from other castes as well.
There Is A Lack Of Political Will To End Manual Scavenging, Says Mr. Wilson
According to Mr. Wilson, legislation and government schemes cannot bring the change in the absence of efficient implementation which can happen only with strong political will. He said that the bureaucracy must change their mindset toward social inequality and that they have to consider all humans equal and must work towards providing dignity to life to everyone. As per Mr. Wilson, in the past five years, the government has not heard any of their appeals even once. He said,
We submitted our election manifesto but it was a waste. We did many demonstrations to protest against the sewer deaths at Jantar Mantar but the government never took us seriously. We did not receive even a single statement from the PrimeMinister’s Office where we submitted our demands directly.
In response to Mr. Wilson’s claim of lack of will from the government, an official from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment that is implementing Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) said,
The Ministry is trying its best to tackle manual scavenging and rehabilitate the people involved in it. We provide one-time cash assistance of Rs. 40,000 per person. Till now, we have provided the cash assistance to more than 35,000 people. Apart from this, we are also running skill development training where Rs. 3,000 per month is given to the trainees as a stipend. Loan facility is also provided for self-employment projects.
The government provides loans for starting a business but this cannot help the sanitation workers because of the lack of understanding on various aspects of business and liabilities attached to the repayment of loans.
As per Mr. Wilson one-time cash assistance of Rs. 40,000 can provide relief to the people involved in manual scavenging and their families but not the rehabilitation. He says that rehabilitation can happen only with genuine efforts of the government. He says that there is a need to design special sustainable schemes for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers so that they can be pulled out of the evil practice and integrate them with the mainstream of the society.
Talking about why national-level programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have not been able to eradicate the practice, Mr. Wilson said that it is a mere toilet construction spree and does not address the plight of the sanitation workers. He said,
Just building crores of toilets and picking up the broom and making a show of cleaning will not change the fact that it will be us who will be cleaning the toilets. It will be our people, the Dalits, and maginalised who will choke to death in the crores of septic tanks installed under this scheme because most of our villages and even cities do not have a proper underground sewage network. Construction of more toilets will only create problems unless the whole cleaning exercise is completely mechanised.
He said that thousands of crores of money have been spent by the central government on advertising for Swachh Bharat Mission but till now not all families that have lost their loved ones to manual scavenging have received a one-time cash assistance of Rs. 10 lakh.
While the technology is advancing in this direction, Mr. Wilson feels that the civic bodies are not willing to invest in buying the technology. He said,
There are machines like septic tank cleaning vacuum machines, a recent robotic machine built by students of IIT Madras called Sepoy Septic Tank Robot, and other such machines. But the government does not want to provide these machines to the sanitation workers. It is not investing in machines and is conveniently using humans to work wherever blockages are happening.
It is the government’s responsibility to end manual scavenging. He said unless the government addresses the issue holistically it won’t make much progress. He asserted,
The various government and government bodies need to stop playing the blame game. If nobody is employing manual scavengers then why are they going inside? Does the government want to say that these people are willingly jumping in the sewage to die? When citizens are dying, the government should have at least some decency to acknowledge that something is wrong. One sewer death happened in front of the Delhi Jal Board office itself and one happened in front of the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan (LNJP) hospital. Three people died at the India Gandhi art and cultural centre and the government act so aloof to these deaths. If the government is not engaging the manual scavengers directly then the contractors are. One or the other way, the sanitation workers are being engaged in this act.
Talking about the solution to achieve a manual scavenging free country, Mr. Wilson suggested the following measures:
1. Identify the women who are cleaning the dry latrines and men who are entering sewers and septic tanks to clean those.
2. Dry toilets or the insanitary toilets must be demolished or converted into flush toilets/ sanitary toilets on the priority basis.
3. Build a robust sewer drainage network and deploy machines to clean those.
4. A rehabilitation scheme must be designed for manual scavengers to pull them out of the practice in a more sustainable way.
While signing off, Mr. Wilson shared that his ultimate dream see India transform into such a nation where human being are not required to clean human excreta by hand for earning two square meals. He asserted that in order to achieve this, the government has to come forward proactively to help manual scavengers and incorporate them in other jobs. He said,
Government is big powerful machinery. It runs a number of sectors and is at a position of creating jobs. For example, railways has a big catering, manual scavengers can be rehabilitated in providing this service. India is a great country. It has the potential to come out to of this inhumane activity of manual scavenging. I have not lost hope. But the political will is completely absent. Because it is a democratic country, political will matters. Philanthropy alone cannot achieve the eradication of manual scavenging.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollution, clean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.