“Unless you listen to the people who clean the country, you cannot have a Swacch Bharat”: Bezwada Wilson11 min read
In India, the practice of ‘manual scavenging’, the handling of human excreta has historically been reserved for a particular group of people just because of the accident of their birth into the lowest caste.
Bezwada Wilson, born into the same community, broke the barriers of society at a very young age and has been battling the scourge for more than thirty years now. In recognition of his endeavors, he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award 2016. The battle though continues.
The Manipal Journal interviewed the veteran activist about his work, his plans for the future and more.
First of all, I congratulate you for the award and for the acknowledgment of your fight by the International community. How has been your journey in this fight against this social evil this far?
See, the society is not going to change overnight. The problem with the Indian society is that some changes happen overnight but some take a long time. You see, changes in fashion, music and such things are adopted very quickly but social changes concerning hunger, poverty, inequality and all take a long time of centuries.
The problem is the ruling class which has been hunting others’ rights to protect their own. So, there are two very different ‘Indias’ before us at this time, one moves very fast and is called ‘developing India’ whereas the other one still looks backward. And this is just because of the ruling class that may be of a certain caste or gender.
According to ‘THE PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT AS MANUAL SCAVENGERS AND THEIR REHABILITATION ACT, 2013’ the State says that “A person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of essential devices and using such protective gear,( AS THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT MAY NOTIFY IN THIS BEHALF), shall not be deemed to be a ‘MANUAL SCAVENGER’ “.
Do you agree with this definition by the state and would you be happy if the authorities provided them with essential equipment and protective gears?
Is there a law which says this?
Yes, it’s the definition of manual scavenging according to ‘THE PROHIBITION OF EMPLOYMENT AS MANUAL SCAVENGERS AND THEIR REHABILITATION ACT, 2013’.
No, the definition of scavenging is ‘Clearing, carrying and disposing of human excreta in any manner’. And this definition is an exception. The problem here is that this exception has been taken for two reasons, one, the underground water drainage, and two, the Indian railways. By keeping these two reasons in front they added this clause, and I myself was there when they were drafting it. We objected to it because it can breach the whole spirit of the act. They will say it is “in case of an emergency”, but then they might say “everything is an emergency”, and they will also define the emergency according to their convenience.
They can say anything but as a member of Safai Karmachari Andolan and a person from the community I never accepted it because the dignity of the people can’t be amended by any kind of clause. It is their basic dignity which should be protected. But even after our opposition, the government went ahead. It should be deleted and we have to request the court to intervene in the matter. With such definitions, the total eradication of manual scavenging is not going to happen.
Do you think a complete and sudden stoppage of all human handling of human waste, including protected and geared handling, will be problematic and that we need a substitute?
See, one thing very clear, we are not stopping the sweeping process or other cleaning jobs. We only are talking about human excreta, the cleaning, carrying and disposing of it. How can you accept some other human being handling your shit in a developed or developing society, or even in any human society? Even the thought of such a thing is dangerous in a democracy, where all the citizens are equal. There are several models and technologies across the globe and it’s the government’s duty to find some other way. Even in India, we have very good drainage models and solutions to the problem.
But the problem in the society is that we are not ready to adopt a new system. After using a toilet or flushing, we think it’s the ‘other’s’ job now. The government does not even think about it. You see, in a population of one hundred and thirty crores, we don’t have even a single department to think about this problem, and this is why everything is dumped on a particular section of a society and their self-dignity is killed.
You’ve been fighting this evil for more than 30 years and have ‘rescued’ thousands of scavengers. In 2007, you launched a mission called ‘ACTION 2010’ with a goal to eradicate manual scavenging from the country. But unfortunately that could not happen, and the ministry of social justice and empowerment itself accepts a figure of more than 12,000 manual scavengers employed in the practice today.
82% of them are in Uttar Pradesh and I have seen these people working and killing their self-dignity. Why despite a nationwide movement have we not eradicated the practice, and what is the further plan of the Safai Karmachari Andolan?
‘Action 2010’ was a kind of natural target which wasn’t set by SKA but the people themselves. We thought that in three years we could make it happen, but the problem that occurred in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujrat and also in a few parts of Jammu and Kashmir was that we never had our own team of volunteers and hence we had to be dependent on other agencies and groups. This is why we could not achieve our target in some parts of the country.
But even after the success of your movement in the state of Karnataka, there are more than 24,000 dry latrines and more than 300 manual scavengers according to the government.
No, this is the wrong figure. The problem with the Socio-economic Cast census (SECC) is that they have a different kind of calculation methodology which is not correct in this matter. Karnataka has a very good underground drainage system and septic tanks, and Tamil Nadu tops in this. This wrong data is given by the government officials deliberately, in states like Uttar Pradesh, they have hardly given 10% of the actual data and here they show an exaggerated figure. In fact, they counted the unsanitary latrines as dry latrines. Even in Punjab, the numbers are too high. And this is just because of political benefits.
Because of their wrong figures, we could not enter states like UP, MP, Bihar and Gujarat by 2009 or 2010. So, we are planning to map all the dry latrines ourselves and then we will flag off our new mission in 2017. We have volunteers; we will go on marches, cleanliness drives and create awareness.
What do you think are the barriers in society for a person if he/she wants to quit this profession? We see even religious conversions to change profession sometimes. In the face of such desperation, does he have any options or support to pursue some other profession within the same society?
See, religion has nothing to do with this social evil, it happens in other religions too. When you move from one religion to another, sometimes you have chances to perform some other profession but not always. So I’ll not talk about religious conversions, we Indians have a right to worship any religion.
There is no such word as “forceful conversions”, you can call it “Unconstitutional or Illegal” but not “forceful”. Nobody can pull in or push out of a religion. Religion is a spiritual choice; it can’t be imposed on somebody. It’s their choice and let them decide it!
And this is not even an issue when there are much bigger issues in the country. Do we have a law to remove poverty? Do we have a law that if somebody dies of hunger then the whole society has to answer? No, we don’t, we don’t even talk about the real issues. This way, we emotionally take people away from the actual issues. This is all a conspiracy by the elite ruling class.
If you have emotions, do something about malnutrition, more than 2 lakh children are dying every year. Do something about manual scavenging, humans having to clean human excreta!
Do you think that religious or spiritual leaders should come out and take a stand against this evil as we are a society which follows these leaders? Do you look forward to carrying this movement forward with the help and support of any of them?
No, absolutely no! India is a secular country and this quality should be protected. We have a constitution which we follow and we have to solve our problems within the constitutional framework. But, if any religious leader wants to come and talk about the issues, they are welcome but we do not expect any kind of help from them.
In 7 years, Modi appears to have changed his stands on scavenging. What he referred to as a “spiritual experience” for Dalits 7 years ago has now turned upside down; he has called for an end to this practice. Do you think that the current central government is doing enough in this regard and what else can they do?
See, every politician including the Prime Minister talks according to the pulse of the public. That time he felt it was a “spiritual experience”, and since then he never apologised. So, I feel that he still believes the same but because of the public’s pulse he had to condemn it.
If he had apologised I could have had some hopes from him and his government. The most important thing he should understand is that India is a caste based society and as the PM of the country he should urge people to eradicate this caste based occupation.
You talk about “Swacch Bharat” (clean India) you do “mann ki baat” (talk of the heart). But unless you listen to the people who clean the country, you can’t have a “Swacch Bharat”. You see, I’m very critical of the Prime Minister and some politicians (smiles).
A lot has changed after the death of Rohit Vemula and the protests at JNU, and the government has been alleged to be anti-dalit by many critics. In your recent speech in JNU, you said that Dalit women are scared of sending their children to universities. Do you think the situation has changed at all for students and what do you think students themselves can do to sensitize campuses about Dalit issues?
It is a very relevant and important point you’ve raised. I believe, the universities are universes of their own; you can think anything, you can express anything, you can about talk anything because that is the way actual knowledge can spread and important subjects of the society can be addressed. You can’t stop a child from saying that the king is not wearing clothes, it will say whatever it feels like and it doesn’t mean that others don’t know. It’s just that only a child has the courage to speak the truth. I strongly believe that the universities and students have the courage to stand for the society.
But nowadays the educational institutions are becoming prejudiced. Restrictions are being put on students; on what to talk, what to think, what you can’t go beyond. They call things “anti-national”. I say there is nothing anti-national. Students are the future of this country; none of them is carrying a weapon and killing people. India is a great country and we have the capacity to fight the anti-national elements, but by restricting students you are showing your fear, you are just curtailing the freedom of speech.
And, you asked about Dalits, Yes, they are living in an atmosphere of fear, they are not being allowed inside universities, they are being threatened and beaten. Rohit Vemula’s case is not the first one; there have been such cases for a long time which has created a sense of fear in their minds.
Recently, I met Radha Vemula (Rohit Vemula’s mother) and she told me that Raja (Rohit’s brother) is not willing to go to the university. When I asked Raja, he said that mother doesn’t want him to go. They are in a dilemma and fear the worst.
Excluding a community, curtailing the right to freedom of speech and expression and suppressing the voice of students will not help make a better society. The Government can’t act like a drill master; I was very scared of my drill master who would use sticks on students and you would have to listen. Sir, school is over and this is university, and not even in schools should a stick be used (laughs).
The students must have their freedom because their age group has a mixture of knowledge, courage and smart ideas, and only the youth can lead us to a better nation.
Featured image courtesy: Aayushmaan Sharma
Edited by: Soumyajit Saha.