Bezwada Wilson was named as one of the recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award on Wednesday
Bengaluru: Bezwada Wilson is not a household name.
But for the families of the three men who died while cleaning Bengaluru’s sewers in 2010, the founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan is quite the saviour.
Wilson, who was named as one of the recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award on Wednesday, left everything and rushed to Bengaluru from Delhi to help those families protest the death of their dear ones in the unwelcoming corridors of the city’s municipal corporation, recalled Y J Rajendra, a social work department professor at St Joseph’s college.
“He was in Delhi then. But next day morning he was here, and the authorities started taking us more seriously," said Rajendra, who is also the general secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Karnataka. “We were able to get the family a decent compensation at the spot itself."
For many like Rajendra, Wilson is a tireless crusader against manual scavenging and the face of several Dalit protests pursuing social-political equity for backward classes in public life in India.
Aptly, Wilson, who has spent over three decades on this mission, was named as an awardee for “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity" on Wednesday.
Manual scavenging, the term used for people who physically remove human excrement from dry toilets in the country, kills at least 22,327 men and women in India every year, estimated journalist and editor of Navayana publication S Anand in an article in the Hindu newspaper in 2007.
Despite being illegal, the arguably worst job in the country is mostly done by the untouchables or dalits— and 98% of them are women.
Wilson, 50, was born into a Dalit family in Karnataka’s Kolar district and grew up watching his parents carrying human excreta to trucks for the city to be clean.
During his childhood, Kolar, known for its huge gold mining fields, had only dry latrines and no proper underground drains, recalled Wilson in an interview to Business Standard earlier this year.
This meant in order to clean them, someone had to burrow down deep into the pit physically and the villagers mostly got the Dalits or untouchables or migrants to do this job, he said.
The turning point in his life came around 1982, when he got fed up with the humiliation associated with the job, he said in an interview to Huffington Post in February.
“I wrote a letter to the managing director of KGF, that this system is prevalent here. So he wrote back to me that this system is in place for the last 140 years and that they planned to switch to flush toilets. Following that, I wrote to the Prime Minister. The press came to know of it and they covered the story. Finally, they demolished the dry toilets. That was my first experience of direct action," he said.
Wilson went on to graduate in political science in B R Ambedkar Open University in Hyderabad and spend the next thirty-two years fighting against manual scavenging. The Safai Karmachari Andolan is his vehicle for popular protests.
Wilson was instrumental in winning a 2014 case in Supreme Court, which led to a notable judgement that ordered Rs. 10 lakh compensation must be paid in each case of death due to manual scavanging. The SC judgement also said the authorities must book cases against those who caused the death of manual scavengers.
“Some years ago, Bezwada Wilson’s activism on manual scavenging shook up the central government into action. Bureaucrats sought him out in awe," Shivam Vij, contributing editor, Huffington Post India, tweeted on Wednesday.
Early this year, Wilson took an orange coloured bus with manual scavengers on the board and crisscrossed the country from Delhi to Assam and back, to raise awareness about the practice of manual scavenging. The campaign called as “Bhim Yatra" coincided with the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar had generated quite some buzz.
Still, his friends like Rajendra lamented about the obscurity surrounding the work of the Magsaysay award winner in his own country.
“People like Wilson were never really recognised in India for two reasons-- first, the civil society and the government did not take their work seriously so far, and second, he never goes beyond the awards," said Rajendra, who’s association with Wilson dates back to the early 2000s.
“Although the international community has recognised his contributions, the irony is that both at the state or central level he is yet to be recognised by any means," he added.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award, widely regarded as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, is given every year to Asian individuals (or organizations) who do selfless service in their field of work. Constituted in 1958, the award is given in memory of the late Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay.
Other Indians who have won the award in the earlier years include journalist P Sainath and social activists like Aruna Roy and Mandakini Amte.
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