‘More toilets only mean more scavengers’

Wilson began his agitation against manual scavenging in the 1980s after realizing its import for his family and the Dalit community.

August 01, 2016 11:14 pm | Updated 11:14 pm IST - HYDERABAD:

The Ramon Magasaysay award has turned the spotlight on manual scavengers again but the shadow of Swacch Bharat looms over them, says one of this year’s awardees, Bezwada Wilson — one of the founders and convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a civil society movement that aims to eradicate manual scavenging.

The activist is scathing about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship scheme. Apart from politicians posing for cameras with pristine brooms, what irks him about the mass clean India campaign is the grand plan of building millions of toilets across the country.

“Many of these toilets will be constructed in areas where sanitation facilities, including septic tanks and running water, are not available. Who will remove the waste there?” Mr Wilson asked and asserted that his organisation would demolish toilets which require human scavengers .

Trapped by caste

According to Mr. Wilson, there are two lakh manual scavengers in India today, nearly all of them concentrated in North India. “This is due to the rampant practice of caste discrimination in the north,” he explains. The Safai Karmachari Andolan and its convener firmly believe the perpetuation of caste-based occupations in the country has trapped Dalits in demeaning occupations like manual scavenging.

“Nearly 40 per cent of the country is poor and yet only Dalits are involved in manual scavenging. We should not buy the argument that poverty pushes them into this abominable profession,” he said, referring to the community’s protests in Gujarat where they have abstained from clearing animal carcasses following assaults by cow protection groups.

Gas chambers

Mr. Wilson began his agitation against manual scavenging in the 1980s after realizing its import for his family and the Dalit community. The Andolan has more recently trained its guns on local municipalities that employ humans to clear clogged drains, putting them at risk of death due to asphyxiation.

“This is a new form of exploitation. Why are most of these manhole-clearing personnel Dalit?” he asks. Around 1,073 people have died cleaning drains and septic tanks, Mr Wilson asserts.

Bezwada Wilson was recognized by the Ramon Magsaysay jury this year for freeing three lakh manual scavengers. But he admits rehabilitation of those liberated scavengers is far from perfect. “The government helped some of them but many manage to earn just about Rs. 400 a month,” he laments. “Our fight must go on.”

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