Mitigating Manual Scavenging
Bezwada Wilson is an activist and one of the founders and national convenors of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a human rights organization that has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, which has been illegal activity in India since 1993. His role at SKA has been recognized by theAshoka Foundation which has nominated him as Senior Fellow. On July 27, 2016, he was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award. Wilson was born in 1966 in the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka. His parents Rachel and Yacob belong to the manual scavenging community. His father began working for the township in 1935 as a manual scavenger, manually removing excreta from dry toilets. He attempted to find other manual labour, but was unsuccessful. His eldest brother also worked as a manual scavenger in the Indian Railways for four years and then ten years in KGF gold mines township. Wilson studied up to upper primary school in Andhra Pradesh and stayed in the hostel for Scheduled Castes. He went to high school and intermediate in Kolar and Hyderabad. When he realized his parents’ true occupation, he contemplated suicide.
Early Days in the Campaign
In 1986, Wilson began his fight to end manual scavenging. The first hurdle in his fight was at home; his parents and relatives said he should not focus his life on something that always existed. It was over years that they came to accept that he was dedicating his life to helping eradicate manual scavenging. Too many people within the community were ashamed to even admit manual scavenging existed or that they did it. Wilson began breaking the silence. Wilson also began a letter writing campaign, contacting the KGF authorities, the minister and chief minister of Karnataka, the prime minister, and newspapers, but they remained largely unacknowledged.
In 1993, the Parliament enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which banned the construction of dry latrines and outlawed the practice of manual scavenging. Despite the ban, the practice of manual scavenging continues across India. Wilson took photographs of dry latrines and manual scavenging in KGF and sent it to P.A.K. Shettigar, the then managing director of KGF, threatening action under the Act. An emergency meeting was called to convert dry latrines into water seal latrines and transfer all scavengers to non-scavenging jobs. However, it was only when photographs were published in 1994 in the Deccan Herald, resulting in embarrassing questions in the Parliament, that the Karnataka government was forced to acknowledge thatmanual scavenging continued to be a problem.
A platform, the Campaign Against Manual Scavenging (CAMS), was formed. This oversaw the conversion of dry latrines into flush toilets and rehabilitation of those who were engaged in manual scavenging. Wilson moved to Andhra Pradesh and began working with Paul Diwakar, a leading Dalit activist, and S.R. Sankaran, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer. In 2001 the Andhra Pradesh government agreed to a total survey of the state to identify manual scavengers and dry latrines for liberation and rehabilitation. Wilson prepared the survey format, where volunteers photographed and documented each manual scavenger and dry latrine.
Safai Karmachari Andolan
In 1994, Wilson helped found Safai Karmachari Andolan along with Sankaran and Paul Diwakar. SKA’s goal was to end the practice of manual scavenging and help those engaged in it find dignified work. SKA initially worked on the state level, until 2003 when Wilson and four other team members moved to Delhi to launch the Safai Karmachari Andolan nationwide. In 2003, Wilson and the SKA initiated the filing of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India. SKA and 18 other civil society organizations, manual scavengers and individuals signed the affidavit as litigants naming all states and government departments like railways, defence, judiciary and education as violators of the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act.
Justice at Slow Pace
The PIL was a major step in the efforts to abolish manual scavenging. All the states and central ministries were forced to address the issue ofmanual scavenging. The Supreme Court gave strict orders that the Chief Secretaries of states and heads of departments of the central ministries should appear before the court for the case hearings. To date there have been 23 hearings and in the state of Haryana, for the first time, in 2010 the act was enforced and 16 members were taken into custody for violating the law and employing manual scavengers.
By 2007, the SKA felt the struggle was going too slow. The legal process had put the onus on the victims to prove manual scavenging existed. So they launched Action 2010, by which they vowed to end manual scavenging by 2010 by simply asking those engaged in the practice to leave the practice and find alternative work. The liberation of safai karmacharis became an important issue during the drafting of the 12th Five Year Plan in 2010. Wilson met with parliamentarians, ministers and national advisory members during this time and submitted systematic documentation of manual scavenging across the country. In October 2010, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, head of the National Advisory Council (NAC), wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office declaring manual scavenging as a national shame and to address its abolition with the utmost urgency and priority. The NAC resolved to see that manual scavenging was over by 2012. Task forces were formed by the Government of India for a new survey of the entire country, rehabilitation, amendment of the law to make it stricter and demolition of dry latrines. The Planning Commission of India constituted a sub-group on safai karmacharis with Wilson as its convenor. The sub-group has submitted its report.
Plight of Manual Scavengers
One safai karmachari dies every five days in India. And from municipalities to governments in states and at the Centre to elected representatives, everybody just shifts the onus for doing something about it. The wretched manual scavengers briefly make news when there is a sewer death, due to asphyxiation or accident, but no authority is heard saying: “This is our problem; we’ll fix it.” Technological innovations are welcome. It’ll be great if machines can take over the grossest tasks of safai karmacharis. But techno-fixes won’t solve the problem. Because, at root, it’s not a technological problem; it is first a social problem and then an administrative one. The safai karmacharis conditioning is so deep that they don’t break these shackles even if they manage to somehow escape scavenging work. They hide their caste identity even from their spouses, fearing discrimination. Can you imagine the need to hide your caste at that level of intimacy?
Manual scavenging is specifically banned under laws passed in 1993 and 2013. Why isn’t the law enforced? The Supreme Court has ordered compensation of `10 lakh for each family that loses a member to sewer cleaning work. Yet, compensation is received in barely 2 per cent of cases. SKA has documented 1,870 deaths while cleaning sewers in the past 10-15 years. Many of these cases go unreported.
Scavenging a Spiritual Experience?
In his book, Karmayog, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of manual scavenging as a “spiritual experience”. Wilson urged the Prime Minister to ask a manual scavenger if s/he feels even remotely spiritual while cleaning other people’s excreta, whether the daily round feels like a pilgrimage. Without exception, they do it because there is no option, no alternative employment for those born into castes identified with scavenging. It’s this kind of ‘spiritual’ whitewash that prevents the government from allocating money for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The same government can allocate `2 lakh crore for a sanitation campaign to build toilets. Most such toilets have pits or septic tanks — 50 million toilets means 50 million pits. Who will clean these? Valmikis, no doubt. A government task force recently put out a new estimate of 53,000 manual scavengers in the country, but this is based on a survey of just 121 of 640 districts, but our own estimate of the number of manual scavengers is closer to 1,50,000.