Fifty-year-old Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), was declared one of the six recipients of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award by the Philippines-based award foundation, in Manila on Wednesday. Recognised for his efforts to eradicate manual scavenging, Mr. Wilson told The Hindu that India still has over two lakh manual scavengers who needed to be rescued, according to a nationwide survey by the SKA.
The award citation recognises Mr. Wilson’s work in “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity”. Of the estimated 600,000 scavengers in India, SKA has liberated around 300,000, the citation notes.
Hailing from a Dalit family in Kolar, Karnataka, Mr. Wilson said his first brush with the local authorities over the abominable practice was in 1986-87, when he saw poor Dalit women cleaning human waste in the public latrines of Kolar Gold Fields. His own family members had been manual scavengers for generations.
“It was a big town, and in those days KGF was known to be the most electrified town after Tokyo,” he said. Yet, the town lacked public toilets with running water. Moved by the plight of the women who had to clean them every day, Mr. Wilson decided to petition the local town municipality to improve facilities. In 1986, he sent a complaint about dry latrines to the authorities and, when it was ignored, he sent the complaint to the Prime Minister, threatening legal action, the award citation notes. As a result, the town’s dry latrines were converted into water-seal latrines and the scavengers transferred to non-scavenging jobs.
Despite his 32 years of activism, Mr. Wilson says challenges remain in putting an end to the practice. “No thorough survey has been conducted as yet to enumerate manual scavengers though State governments have been promising one since 2010,” he said. Expressing scepticism over the implementation of the government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, he said the scheme did little to address the plight of manual scavengers and only sought to build more and more toilets.
Mr. Wilson formed the SKA as a network of activists in 1993. A PIL he filed in the Supreme Court, naming all the States, Union Territories, and relevant government departments as violators of the 1993 Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act, produced positive results. In 2014, the SC ruled in his favour demanding that all States ban manual scavenging and even fixed a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh for families of scavengers who had died on the job.
“In 2014, we gave the Centre a list of 1,073 people who had died while cleaning sewers, but the families of the dead are yet to be compensated fully. Only 36 people from the families of dead sewer cleaners have been compensated, but they did not get the full amount prescribed by the court,” he said.
Our Special Correspondent from Bangalore adds:
Practice still rampant in Kolar
In the hometown of Bezawada Wilson, who has been honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay award for 2016, manual scavengers are not hard to find.
The century-old mining set-up at the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) saw thousands of people — primarily from Dalit communities — being brought in to deal with night waste. Mr. Wilson’s father was among those brought from Andhra Pradesh to KGF.
Though mining operations ended in 2001, the prohibited practice continues in the town where dry latrines are abundant.
The government claims that there are only 82 manual scavengers in KGF. This is disputed by activists and government officials who peg the figure at 800 families — making it the highest density of manual scavengers in Karnataka.
“While more than 12 criminal cases have been filed across the State for manual scavenging, there is little clarity on the prevalence of the banned practice. A 2007 survey threw up a figure of 15,375 manual scavengers. This is clearly under reporting, says Narayana, Chairman of Karnataka State Commission for Safai Karmacharis.
“The number is higher than 25,000,” he alleged. “We have sought a re-survey, but government officials are looking at their list and claiming that the number has reduced.”
The announcement of the Magsaysay award for Mr. Wilson did not trigger celebrations in KGF. Much of his activities have been in Andhra Pradesh or at the national level.