Clean act

"I was born in a scavenger's family," says Bezwada Wilson, a survivor and warrior who has dedicated his life to the fight against manual scavenging in India. The term is euphemistic in the extreme. Manual scavengers are the unfortunates who have to carry and dispose of human excreta — or 'night soil', in cuter language —from latrines and sewers.

This age-old practice has been banned in India for more than 25 years but continues to be widely practiced by, almost to the last person, people hailing from the lowest rung of India's caste system. It is a brutal and degrading business. Literally as well as figuratively, manual scavenging is sickening.

That has not killed it off. There are tens of thousands of manual scavengers still in India — exact figures are impossible to come by — and deaths from the toxic gases they are forced to inhale are reported with nauseating regularity. Tackling the manual scavenging menace has become the mission of Mr Wilson's life.

And an unusual life it has been. Born in a family of manual scavengers, Mr Wilson grew up in the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka before education afforded him the opportunity to break free from a practice both his father and brother were involved with.

The founder and national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a human rights organisation that campaigns for the eradication of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of all scavengers, the 52-year-old Mr Wilson — a Magsaysay Award winner in 2016 — speaks to Shubha Madhukar at SKA's New Delhi office, which also serves as his live-in space.

Bezwada Wilson

No human should be made to clean human excreta, no matter what. This is about the dignity and self-respect of individuals.”

On manual scavenging and its continuing prevalence

Despite India's decades of progress and social development, the practice of manual scavenging — where human beings belonging to a certain community are employed to clear the excreta of others — is still prevalent. Manual scavenging is illegal, which means that by law no one can employ scavengers. But there has been no conviction over the last 25 years. The Indian Parliament enacted the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers Act in 2013, but it has proved insufficient to stop the vile practice. SKA believes about 160,000 people are involved in such work though government data pegs the number at just 54,000.

The truth is that those entrusted with the implementation of the Act are not horrified about humans cleaning toilets. Years of caste biases and prejudices have conditioned them to think that those involved in scavenging — very often Dalits — are meant for such work and that it is justified. They fail to see it as violently abusive and unlawful.

On violation of human rights of manual scavengers

The issue of manual scavenging has two parts to it. The first is the ecological and health hazards. The second is the labour angle. The people involved in the activity are often paid very low wages and, hence, the demand for higher salaries and permanent employment.

For us at SKA, this is not a wage issue. We view it as a humanitarian problem and a human rights issue. While some people say that the situation can be mitigated by providing workers with safety gear, our stand has been consistent: no human should be made to clean human excreta, no matter what. This is about the dignity and self-respect of individuals.

On his early years

I was born in a scavenger's family in Kolar in Karnataka. My father and brother were employed with Bharat Gold Mines [BGML] as scavengers. Up to class IV, I studied in a school that was exclusively meant for children whose parents were involved in scavenging. It was called the 'Thoti school', thoti being the Kannada word for lower caste.

Mamta Valmik, a 55-year-old municipal employee, sweeps the ground at the bus stand in Amanganj in Madhya Pradesh. Mamta got the job following the death of her husband, Kirpal, 27 years ago. Kirpal was killed while cleaning a septic tank with five other municipal workers, who were badly injured but survived. Mamta's son, Surendra, also works with the municipality as a sweeper.

For class V, I moved to Kuppam in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. I was an average student but my teachers thought I was intelligent and could do better. My mother played a big role in me completing my education. She was of the firm opinion that I must study and change the destiny of my family. I ended up graduating in political science from the Dr BR Ambedkar Open University, Hyderabad.

On the formation of SKA

It was during my years in Kuppam that I encountered the darker side of life. Until then I had been living a cocooned existence, insulated from the harsh realities of the work that my community and my family were involved in. The truth was very disturbing and caused me mental agony.

I wanted to change the situation but I was clueless about the way forward. I started travelling to different places in Karnataka to make people aware about their situation and convince them to change. During college, I started noticing that many children from my community dropped out of school to take up scavenging. I realised that if our children could be encouraged to complete school and take up some sort of vocational training, we could break the vicious cycle.

Mukeshdevi, a 42-year-old manual scavenger from Bhagwatpura, a small town in Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh, won't reveal her surname because "once people come to know that we are Valmikis, they treat us badly". Mukeshdevi has been a manual scavenger for 15 years. Asked why she continues with it, she says, "What other option do we have?"

In 1984, I shot off a letter to [then prime minister] Rajiv Gandhi detailing the manual scavenging that was still being followed at BGML and seeking his intervention. I wrote several such letters but never received any response as I had failed to mention my address. Finally, I got a letter from the BGML technical director.

He informed me that manual scavenging had been continuing at the mines for over 114 years and that the mine management had taken several steps to do away with dry latrines and spent a lot of money. I found the truth to be something else. Manual scavenging was still prevalent and the money spent by the company to convert the dry latrines had been siphoned off. I approached the media and a furore broke out. BGML was forced to convert all its dry toilets, prevent manual scavenging and rehabilitate the 107 people it had employed to clear toilets.

Over the years, a need was felt to create an organisation to eliminate manual scavenging. In 1994, I, along with Dalit activist SR Sankaran and Paul Diwakar, a retired bureaucrat, founded SKA. Our goal is to end the practice of manual scavenging and help those engaged in it find dignified work. We are now active in 22 states and have about 5,000 volunteers and 270 full-timers working to root out this vile practice.

Members of the Dom community from Thillaigaon village in Hathni in Bihar. Almost all Dom men work as manual scavengers or sanitation workers. The community, which lives on the outskirts of the village, faces humiliation on a daily basis. In April 2018, many Dom houses were burnt in a fire. The cause of the blaze remains unknown. Some say it was accidental; many think otherwise. As the Dalit writer and poet, Om Prakash Valmiki, said, "Only those who face discrimination can know its sting."

On partnering the Tata Trusts for change

In 2003, SKA filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India praying for directions to the central and state governments for strict enforcement of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

During the hearing, the apex court had to be informed about the number of manual scavengers in India. We had no such data and little means to carry out a survey to collect this data. That's when we approached the Tata Trusts for support. It was thanks to them that, in 2005, we could collect data from 370-380 districts spread across 18 states. The survey gave us good data and helped bolster SKA's image and credibility.

On remaining hopeful

When we started SKA, we believed that manual scavenging could be rooted out by 2010. That has not happened. The practice continues in several states, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Maharashtra among them. But we continue our work and we are hopeful that it will come to an end in a year or two

Geeta Kisan, a 48-year-old conservancy worker, goes about her job in Bhagwatpura in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. "I have been clicked several times by journalists and social organisations, but nothing has really worked in our favour," she says.