We need a Live Indian Mission, not Clean India mission: Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson.
Image Credit: Nilima Pathak/Gulf News Nilima Pathak, Correspondent
New Delhi: When Bezwada Wilson was dispatched for studies to a residential upper primary school in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in the early 1970s, the young boy from the neighbouring state of Karnataka assumed it was an act of overzealous protection by his parents, who simply wanted him out of the traditional gold-mining neighbourhood he grew up in.
But signs soon emerged that something was amiss.
Wilson was forced to stay in a segregated hostel with a few other pupils, away from many of his classmates. Many in his school began mocking him as a "thoti", which in his vernacular Telugu meant a large garbage skip and was hurled as a common insult at scavengers - a job typically reserved for the Dalits or the multi-million community of the lowest rung of the hierarchical caste system that structures traditional Hindu society in India.
Generally referred to as the "scheduled castes," the Dalits - meaning "crushed" and invoking the oppressive past suffered by the community over centuries of Indian history sweeping trash and manually cleaning sewage and excreta from roadsides and toiltes in India - were in theory deemed to be untouchable until India's independence in 1947.
That is when India outlawed discrimination based on caste, and with the adoption of the Indian constitution in 1950, made it a punishable offense to treat anyone as "untouchable".
But in practice, as Wilson was about to find out soon, the reality was far more distressing.
When a depressed and confused Wilson turned to his parents for clarity, their patient explanation demolished every iota of respect the teenager had for himself, his family and his community.
"Since I had grown up in a gold mining area, I was made to believe that mining was how my parents earned a living," says Wilson in an exclusive interview with Gulf News. "It was at the age of 18 that I first witnessed a man cleaning a dry toilet. It shocked me. But then I was all the more appalled to find that even my parents and my elder brother were doing the same work to earn their living, as we were Dalits and always referred to as 'untouchables'. There were no other jobs available for our community."
Wilson learnt that his father began working for the KGF gold mines township in Karnataka in 1935 as a scavenger, manually removing night soil from dry toilets, after his attempts to find other forms of manual labour were unsuccessful. His elder brother also worked as a manual scavenger in the Indian railways for four years and then moved to his family town to continue the same job.
A distraught Wilson contemplated suicide. "I knew I could not live with it. And my life changed," he says.
Wilson spent the next three decades fighting against the practice, becoming a vocal campaigner not only for the rights of disenfranchised communities and against caste discrimination in India, but also spearheading initiatives to stop the primitive practice of manual scavenging.
That long, hard and often bitter battle last month earned Wilson the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award - Asia's highest honour.
The annual award, set up in 1958, perpetuates former Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay's example of integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society. In its citation for Wilson, the award committee said it recognises "his moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grass roots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India, reclaiming for the Dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright."
At the forefront of Wilson's war against the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging is the Safai Karamchari Andolan or the Cleaners Movement (SKA), an organisation he helped set up in 1994 and which has since changed the lives of thousands of scavengers.
"I have travelled across the country, holding meetings and demonstrations for the movement, leading to several run-ins with government agencies, but I have always continued my fight against this social evil," Wilson says during the interview with Gulf News at his office in East Patel Nagar in the Indian capital of New Delhi.
Devoid of development
Even though the sewerage facility in most Indian homes have now been replaced the water-based systems, in certain pockets of states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar, the old practice of manual scavenging still persists.
That's probably why the Magsaysay Award and the recognition it has brought to him has helped Wilson, who in the past refused to accept many national awards bestowed on him. "The Magsaysay Award will give our community more strength to fight against the system. I have dedicated this award to the thousands of women, who successfully shunned the inhuman practice of manual scavenging without support from anyone," he says. The initial years were expectedly difficult for Wilson, because convincing even his own community to change their centuries-old mindset and fight against the injustice was a huge challenge. "People had been working as manual scavengers for generations and were captives of their work and thoughts. Though, as before, there is [still] no political will in this direction, with awards and recognition our society has begun looking into the issue and we do not feel alone," he said.
Wilson's Magsaysay honour comes at a time of heightened awareness of the plight of Dalits across India, thanks to protests by a section of them in the western state of Gujarat against attacks targeting them for skinning cows, and the 2015 suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vermula at Hyderabad University.
Vermula, a brilliant scholar and a popular campus activist for the rights of India's backward communities, was driven to utter despair due to relentless acts of discrimination and left the following as his suicide note: "The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind."
The reference was also to India's affirmative action programme - in the early 1950s, India set aside for Dalits and other backward castes about 23 per cent of government jobs and seats in public universities, which today have swelled to cover about 50 per cent of such posts and seats, but have hardly solved the problems of the community.
"Successive governments have kept the Dalits away from any kind of development. Even though there has been a rehabilitation scheme since 1993, not a single Dalit has been rehabilitated under the scheme. We expect the government to bring in a social change and vote for politicians so that they can protect the rights of the marginalised. But there is no comprehensive action plan that is in our interest," says Wilson.
The astounding number of manual scavengers in India proves his point - more than 1.6 million Dalits are estimated to work as scavengers, with 98 per cent of them being women.
"On the one hand, we have to fight patriarchy within the caste. On the other, we try educating women to fight the system. Men do this job only where they are able to make money out of it," he says.
Speaking about his future line of action, he says: "In 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines [Prohibition] Act was passed. As a result of sustained activism by us, in 2013, the Indian government amended the Act to cover those cleaning septic tanks, sewers, open drains and railway tracks. We now are moving towards sustained action where government agencies are left with no option other than liberating Dalits of this inhuman practice."
Taking a swipe at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Clean India Movement," Wilson says: "The government has launched Swachh Bharat Mission, but 'Livelihood Mission' is what we actually require."
"It would have made sense if Modi had invested money on modernising the whole sanitation and drainage system to clean septic tanks and sewer lines with minimum human intervention. This would have ended manual scavenging. You cannot have smart cities without having smart sanitation. In a country where hundreds of people are dying every year while physically cleaning manholes and no one is bothered, can we call it modernisation?" he asked.
Under the programme, the federal government has aimed to construct more than 100 million toilets by 2019. "That's exactly where the problem is," says Wilson. "The mission aims to build toilets, but without bothering whether people are actually using them and, more importantly, whether there is a provision of water in toilets."
The ultimate irony, Wilson says, is that the mission does not talk about eradicating manual scavenging. "So one can make out who finally will be cleaning these toilets - the Dalit scavengers!"
WHO IS BEZWADA WILSON?
* Bezwada Wilson was born in 1966 in the Kolar Gold Fields township in Karnataka to Rachel and Jacob Bezwada.
* He finished his high school and intermediate schooling from Karnataka and Hyderabad.
* He graduated in political science from Dr. B R Ambedkar Open University in Hyderabad. * He began the fight to eradicate manual scavenging in 1986 and after immense struggle started a forum Campaign Against Manual Scavenging. * Founded the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) in 1994 and moved to Delhi in 2003, launching SKA nationwide. * In 2003, SKA filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court, which forced all the states to address the issue of manual scavenging. * He was elected an Ashoka Senior Fellow for human rights in 2009.
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