Home / Lounge / Features /  Opinion: A long fight to end a vile job

The first time Bezwada Wilson, 53, witnessed the actual act of manual scavenging in the large, British-era dry latrines of the Bharat Gold Mines of the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka, he tells me, his world was suddenly divided into two kinds of people: People who defecate and people who clean their shit. He saw everyone around him through this prism.

As the teenager watched people from his Thotti Dalit community empty the big pit of human excreta and load it on to a tanker, bucket by bucket, immersing a hand and then feet in the brimming pit when a bucket suddenly fell, he understood clearly that this inhuman practice needed to end.

Most manual scavengers at the KGF just said they worked in the gold mines, preferring to keep the details vague and hoping that people would imagine they were miners digging for gold.

Both his father and his eldest brother worked as manual scavengers in the toilets on the grounds outside these mines. His eldest brother hid this from most people; his wife only found out exactly what he did after eight years of marriage.

Whenever she asked him about the foul smell that lingered around him, he would say he had driven the tractor loaded with human excreta to the dumping ground. “He’s illiterate but even now he carries pens in his pocket so you believe he’s educated," Wilson says.

Back then, Wilson was a class XII drop-out who conducted functional literacy classes every evening for the women from the Telugu-speaking families of manual scavengers. He tried to understand why so many people from his community were alcoholics (they needed to drink to numb the effect of the work they did, they told him). He was anguished when he finally saw their work first-hand, but didn’t have the vocabulary to convince them they had the right to a different life.

His relentless, informal talks with people were labelled “spreading awareness", and when he called them and they showed up, he was lauded for his “organizational skills". He knew a few English words and his early notes to the management of the mines or the prime minister simply read: “Manual scavenging no good. Very, very dangerous" or “Stop manual scavenging immediately". He knew this last word because it was often used to communicate urgency in telegrams.

Eventually, through sheer doggedness, an instinctive understanding of the place he had grown up in, and a threat of legal action if the mine management didn’t reply in “21 days" (a classic Indian psychological trick he learnt from someone, he says), Wilson managed to get the mines to demolish the dry latrines. He became famous in Karnataka and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, recounting his success story in many districts.

We meet at the east Delhi office of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a movement Wilson co-founded about a decade later, in 1993, to eradicate manual scavenging and one he has formally worked with since as national convener. His office employs 18 mostly young people and Wilson remains unfazed by the work habits of millennials. “They come and go. I have no clue about them. Someone will send me a message at 2pm saying I’m not coming because I just woke up. But they are always there when I need them."

A manual scavenger photographed in September 2017.
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A manual scavenger photographed in September 2017. (Hindustan Times)

Political theorist and fellow Dalit activist Kancha Ilaiah occasionally advises him to try a different approach. “He tells me to stop all this and start English-medium schools instead," says Wilson, who speaks in a mix of Hindi and English. But the 2016 Magsaysay Award winner is not budging until we rehabilitate an estimated 770,000 manual scavengers (mostly women) and end the worst occupation in this country.

Earlier this month, the SKA released a manifesto that should be more important to all Indians than the manifesto of their favourite political party. It provides a road map to any government to liberate and rehabilitate manual scavengers. It demands better education for their children, who are routinely discriminated against, and excluded, in schools. It asks for greater enforcement of already existing laws such as the landmark Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, a special session of Parliament to debate this issue as well as proper compensation for manhole and septic tank deaths. There have been 389 safai karamcharideaths during Narendra Modi’s tenure, a prime minister who has campaigned relentlessly about Swachh Bharat. And 33 just in the first three months of 2019, says Wilson. The manifesto follows SKA’s powerful social media campaign #StopKillingUs against sewer deaths, launched last October.

Wilson—who opposed the Aadhaar card in court—wants the government to instead issue a Right to Life-21 card to all safai karamcharis and their families across India. The 21 here, as you may have gathered, refers to Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. The SKA has also reiterated its long-standing demand for a public apology from the prime minister for the historical injustices meted out to the community.

Wilson’s parents separated for seven years though he still doesn’t know why, he says. He was born the year after his mother returned home, a miracle baby, the youngest of four, separated in age from his eldest brother by 20 years, and his mother was determined he would study. She even stayed with her son for a few years in a boys’ hostel because he couldn’t bear to be separated from her.

Over the years, Wilson went from being sympathetic to his community to feeling angry about their sense of helplessness and fatalism to finally understanding the big picture. His formal journey of caste consciousness began in 1990 at the centenary celebrations for B.R. Ambedkar. “For the first time, I understood that we are scavengers not because we are illiterate or poor but because we are born into a caste," he says. “I started relating all my personal experiences to this history of my people."

Wilson has a repertoire of tough questions. On a recent episode of the podcast Suno India, for example, he raises a few. Why do we spend so much time on a public discourse about constructing toilets and ignore the problem of dry latrines? Why do we discuss garbage and not shit? Why is the conversation around toilets patriarchal and centred around protecting women’s bodies? Why do we mourn the deaths of some Indians more than others? Why did Narendra Modi wash the feet of five manual scavengers at the Kumbh Mela in February? For the last, he has an easy answer. Wilson says the PM has never expressed sympathy for the deaths of sewer workers or given a single rupee in compensation to their families. When he met them, he had to manipulate the headlines so this wouldn’t be highlighted. And, indeed, all the news stories focused on how Modi was the first PM to wash the feet of safai karamcharis.

Even if you don’t have time to contemplate these questions, Wilson’s bottom line for Indians is simple: It’s time we took ownership of our shit.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

He tweets at @priyaramani

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