There is a wave of optimism among people who have been associated with the job of manual scavenging. The reason is the conferment of the Magsaysay Award upon one of the crusaders against the abhorrent practice — Bezwada Wilson. Most of them do not understand all the implications of this award but they understand well that their crusader has been awarded for relentlessly working to bring this inhuman practice to an end.
July 28 was a busy day for Wilson, he was tied up with back-to-back interviews, talking about a lifetime’s work that he little knew, back when he started, that it would also bring fame one day. However, the flash of glory does not matter to him. He asserts that he will continue to work against scavenging until it is completely abolished in India.
Today, despite stringent laws against manual scavenging, the age-old practice has continued to survive, although the number of scavengers across the country has fallen sharply. According to the 2011 socio-economic census, 180,657 families still engage in this callous practice.
Manual scavenging as a practice was abolished in the year 1993 by an Act of Parliament and a new law was enacted in 2013 called the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. But this has brought little respite to the lives of those who are still doing scavenging work for a living. They continue to work and live in extremely inhuman, barbaric conditions though on paper there is nothing called manual scavenging today.
And this is where Bezwada Wilson and his team of volunteers come into play. They demolish dry latrines wherever they come across them. Even the building of those rudimentary structures — at a time when modern plumbing is centuries old — is illegal as per the anti-manual scavenging law of 1993. Ironically, once activists had to destroy a latrine inside a court complex, right in the heart of the justice delivery infrastructure. Bezwada says the tumult around the demolitions helps him create awareness about the practice of manual scavenging.
The story of Wilson taking on the practice of manual scavenging goes back to 1986, three decades ago. It was then that Wilson finished school in Karnataka and started tutoring children in his sweeper’s colony. Soon he realised that a lot of children from the locality were dropping out from school, the reason being that their parents were alcoholics and couldn’t look after themselves, let alone their progeny. On enquiring about the reasons for such heavy drinking, he was told that it is their that work compels them to find oblivion in alcohol.
Wilson wanted to see for himself what the work is like. Hence one day he decided to shadow these scavengers without their noticing. This is when he saw them picking up excreta from dry latrines and loading it in the basket above their head. The work certainly looked disgusting. On looking at one of the karamcharis picking up excreta by his hand and putting it in the basket, he asked him what was he doing. The curt reply: “Let me do my job.”
Wilson cried that day for the first time and went back home and told his parents about this. He then came to know that this is what his own parents did all their lives before retiring. Ever since, a determined Wilson took on the challenge of eradicating this practice of manual scavenging completely from the landscape of India, not just in rule books. He has since been working on different platforms against this traditional evil that has somehow continued into modern times. He has filed innumerable petitions and PILs since then, seeking a complete ban on it.
The Safai Karamchrai Andolan (SKA) was formed by Wilson in 1994. Later, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court naming all the states, Union Territories and government departments violators of the 1993 Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act. In 2014, the apex court ruled in his favour, demanding that all the states should completely impose a ban on manual scavenging and also provide compensation to the families of those who have died on the job.
Wilson believes that his mission is not even close to accomplishment right now, with thousands of people still working as scavengers across the country although no thorough survey has been conducted to have an exact figure of the same.
Commenting on the Swachh Bharat mission of the government, Wilson says. “The government scheme did little to address the plight of manual scavengers in the country and sought to build more and more toilets.”
What makes Wilson and his supporters happy about the award is that it will give him an opportunity to seize the moment and intensify the struggle against scavenging, exposing the plight of scavengers to more and more people in a bid to create awareness against it.
Among other demands of SKA and Bezwada Wilson are that if a death occurs on the job, it should be recognised as nothing less than homicide and an immediate compensation of Rs 10 lakh should be paid to the deceased’s family members. There should be a modernisation of sewer tanks throughout the country and create a national fund for those who died in the process of cleaning sewers.
Wilson, who recently completed a 125-day Bhim Yatra to mobilise people against this inhumane practice, claims that he has written to all the concerned ministries with a list of demands but there was hardly any response from their side.