For over 30 years, Kolar-born Bezwada Wilson has been fighting one of the worst evils of Indian society -- the practice of manual scavenging. Those involved in this most undignified of labours
manually remove night soil from dry latrines.
On Wednesday, the Philippines recognised Wilson's struggle to rehabilitate these safai karmacharis with this year's Magsaysay Award.
Speaking to OneIndia's Pallavi Sengupta, Wilson said, "Manual scavenging has recently become a topic of discussion in elite circles, but the struggle to do away with it dates back to 1982. It has been a long journey". Excerpts from an interview:
Congratulations on winning the Magsaysay. You said it has been a long journey since 1982. Tell us, what has it been like.
I faced a lot of barriers -- political, social and economic, even language across many states. The biggest problem has been organising the community of manual scavengers themselves. For a long time, I was unwelcome in many quarters of the community who feared I was going to snatch away their only source of income. In fact, they were not even prepared to listen to what I had to say.
I understood the practical reason for such opposition -- their economic condition. Also, manual scavenging has been a practice since the Harappa-Mohenjo Daro times and so it is ingrained in the psyche of these people. So, they found it amusing that I should feel offended about it and was trying to convincing them to give it up.
One old man confronted me with, "If being a doctor, teacher or musician is okay, what's wrong with manual scavenging. It's just another job."
I had to convince him that there were other means to a dignified life.
What's the difference you see now since launching the Safai Karmachari Andolan in 1992?
I went about it the typical Indian way of protesting -- holding dharnas and door-to-door awarness campaigns. I see considerable change in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. I have now turned attention to UP, Rajasthan and Haryana.
My mission is the liberation and rehabilitation of all people engaged in manual scavenging. Safai Karmachari Andolan's major focus is to organise and mobilise the community around the issues of dignity and rights, through strategic advocacy and legal interventions.
Have governments and politicians supported you?
Attempts have been made at several levels, starting in the 1950s when freedom fighter G. S. Lakshman Iyer banned manual scavenging when he was the chairman of Gobichettipalayam Municipality, which became the first local body to ban it officially. Following this, six states passed resolutions requesting the Central government to frame a law against manual scavenging.
The law against manual scavenging was passed in 1993. A new legislation and rules were passed in 2013.
But, there is more to it than what meets the eye. The change is slow and gradual. Politicians themselves are not sure why we should treat manual scavenging as a social evil. So, a lot has been promised, but little has been done.
My movement does not require the government's help for the most part. I only need support and encouragement for the people who are willing to leave the profession, but that hasn't been fully forthcoming. All I have asked government for is to fund the initial costs for a newly-rehabilitated manual scavenger. But even that has not been provided for.
How many manual scavengers are there today? How many have you rehabilitated? What do they do now?
We conducted a survey in 2010 and combined data from 15 states. A total of 7,630 manual scavengers were documented. Of them, only 265 could be convinced to rehabilitate.
According to the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, 180,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood. The 2011 Census of India found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India. Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.
Progress is very slow and with no political will, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pursue the mission. However, the first step is taken and members of these communities are willing to try out other professions, like selling vegetables, working in shops, gardening, etc.
Will the Magsaysay Award help you draw attention to the campaign and speed up the change?
Of course, it will. While I consider this an acknowledgement for the work done, it also recognises the struggle of these communities, who have been facing social discrimination. This is the first step to break the practice of passing on this profession through the generations.
The son of a manual scavenger need not take to the same profession, he can choose to be a doctor. That is his right. My campaign deals with that basic human right. If we are not providing that freedom and opportunity, we are creating a social divide.