Bezwada Wilson has come a long way since he started his fight to end manual scavenging in India in 1986. Now, 30 years on, he has become India’s latest Magsaysay award winner. But his chosen battle is far from won.
Of all the social ills in India, manual scavenging is among the most pernicious, situated at the nexus of caste oppression and economic distress. Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar spoke against it, the government made it illegal in 1993 and various dispensations, including the present one and its predecessor, have inveighed against it. But despite this, and the sterling work done by Wilson’s Safai Karmachari Andolan over the years, the problem isn’t going anywhere just yet; 600,000 manual scavengers remain in the country.
As a moral, economic, caste and health issue, this is untenable. The government will no doubt shower accolades on Wilson, but it must also play a more vigorous role in the battle he has fought for three decades.