The ugly truths of manual scavenging

Who will clean Swachh Bharat toilets, asks Wilson

Bezwada Wilson  

Social activist and Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson questioned the government’s commitment to eradicating manual scavenging in the country by pointing out that the government’s flagship programme Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seems to be counting on the persistence of manual scavenging.

Mr. Wilson, who is the national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, was delivering a lecture on caste and inequality at Delhi’s Zakir Husain College, when he pointed that 12 crore toilets are being constructed under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan without taking into account the fact that they would still need manual scavengers to clean them.


“Who will clean the septic tanks in the absence of suction pumps? India can build cryogenic engines and send rockets to the moon, but we don’t want to invest in technology that removes the need for humans to clean toilets manually,” he said.

Highlighting how the indignity of manual scavenging was invisibilized in society, Mr. Wilson recalled: “In my school textbooks, I never read about what B.R. Ambedkar had to say about untouchability. We only knew what Gandhiji had to say. And we know that Gandhiji compared women manual scavengers to mothers who clean up after their babies. Even today, we are not ready to acknowledge the indignity of an entire community assigned to clean up other people’s excrement.”

Pointing out that “four times as many Indians have already died in septic tanks and underground sewers as have died in terror attacks,” he said: “Our government still does not devote half as much time and resources to combat manual scavenging deaths as it does to the issue of terrorism.”

He said India is suffering from two major viruses — caste and patriarchy — but no politician is ready to talk about this openly. “We cannot fight only caste or only patriarchy; they have to be fought together in every struggle,” he said.

“Manual scavenging is the smallest of India’s problems, but as a nation, in the 70 years of Independence, we haven’t managed to fix it. How then are we going tackle the far bigger problem of fundamentalism today?”

“In a country where 44 per cent are still malnourished, you have the state telling the people what they should not eat. In a country where many are too poor to afford decent clothing, you have outfits that dictate what people should not wear. Without freedom to eat what we like, wear what like, and say what we want within the constitutional framework, what does independence mean?” he said.

....We know that Gandhiji compared women manual scavengers to mothers who clean up after their babies

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 12:19:19 AM |

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