India: Award-Winning Activist Campaigns for Latrine Cleaners

Soni Sangwan
New Delhi
2016-09-12
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160912-IN-wilson-620.jpg Bezwada Wilson addresses sanitary workers during a recent rally in New Delhi against the practice of manual emptying and cleaning of dry latrines.
Courtesy Bezwada Wilson

During his teen years a depressing reality pushed Bezwada Wilson to thoughts of suicide: his parents cleaned local latrines by hand – a job reserved for lower-caste Hindus, including his family.

Wilson, who was repeatedly taunted over this by boys his age, vowed then to fight against the practice where mostly Dalits – a historically marginalized community in India – are relegated to cleaning out human excreta from dry latrines, using baskets, metal scrapers and their bare hands.

“Though there is a government legislation banning manual scavenging, the practice continues in several states in India,” Wilson, 50, told BenarNews in an interview.

Wilson’s 32-year crusade to end the practice of manual scavenging of latrines – as it is known in India, where 180,000 Dalit households still work in manually cleaning and emptying dry latrines – has earned him a Ramon Magsaysay Award.

The award, named after a former Philippine president, has been called Asia’s Nobel Prize. Wilson is among six people and organizations that were named winners of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award in late July.

He is one of two Indians to receive the prize this year, and he earned his for “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity,” according to the foundation that hands out the award.

Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, Wilson was named a winner of the award for his work as the founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a New Delhi-based human rights organization that has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging.

The foundation’s board of trustees recognized Wilson’s “moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India, reclaiming for the [D]alits the human dignity that is their natural birthright.”

Wilson began his agitation at the Kolar Gold Fields in the southern state of Karnataka, where his parents scavenged for human waste, by destroying latrines there.

“The government wants to wash its hands of the matter, but there is no denying that several government departments, including the Indian Railways, continue to employ manual scavengers,” he said.

Wilson said the SKA was in the process of determining the number of dry latrines in the country. “Once that is done, we will share the information with the government and give it three months to shut these latrines, failing which, we will go and destroy the toilets ourselves,” he added.

Bezwada Wilson

Here is the rest of Benar’s interview with Bezwada Wilson:

BN: What is the biggest roadblock in ending manual scavenging?

Wilson: The government, bureaucrats, the officials – they are the biggest impediment in the way to ending manual scavenging.

After the 1993 Act, when the various governments were asked to give reports about the existence of dry latrines and manual scavenging, these officials have all denied the very presence of the practice. So when it comes to taking action to end it, they hide behind the paper reports.

When we confront them with photographs and affidavits of manual scavengers, they refuse to accept the reality.

No one has been penalized for hiring manual scavengers, except in Haryana, when 22 people were arrested in 1993.

In fact, when we go to demolish the dry latrines and the officials try to stop us, we tell them, how can you stop us from demolishing something that according to you does not exist?

BN: How do you think the Magsaysay award is going to affect your efforts against manual scavenging?

Wilson: We have been fighting for decades now. But despite the 1993 legislation outlawing dry latrines and the engagement of manual scavengers, the practice continues.

I hope that with this award, awareness about the problem will rise.

Already, we are getting calls and emails from people asking how they can help, volunteering to be part of our movement. This award will go a long way in earning us goodwill and helping us in our campaigns.

BN: Who was the first person you shared the news of your award with?

Wilson: When I received the call about getting the Ramon Magsaysay award, I was told not to tell anyone until the official announcements were made. So actually I did not tell anyone.

But when the news became public, the person I wanted to share the news with first was Narayanamma. She is a former manual scavenger and has been one of our volunteers at SKA for over 25 years now.

In fact, I also asked her to accompany me for the award ceremony. We had to get her a passport at real short notice and she went with me. Maya Gautam, another volunteer with our organization, also went with me to receive the award.

BN: What is your roadmap for the future?

Wilson: We have to tackle the issue in a phased manner. First of all, we have to close down the dry latrines. This is the root of the problem.

Once the root is removed, the next phase will be rehabilitation. We have given the government an ultimatum. We are in the process of compiling nationwide data on the number of dry latrines.

Once the data is complete, we will present it to the government and give them a three-month deadline to destroy the dry latrines. If the government fails to do so, we will go and break the toilets ourselves.

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