Bezwada Wilson, 56, born in Kolar to manual scavenger parents, has dedicated his life to the cause of eradicating the demeaning practice in India. He leads the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement for and with sanitation workers, women, men and children, whose social background and economic marginality push them into a type of labour that should have been eliminated long ago. In this interview, the Ramon Magsaysay awardee talks about caste, patriarchy and manual scavenging, elaborating his relationship to both Gandhi and Ambedkar. Edited excerpts:
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If somebody asked you: are you a Gandhian or an Ambedkarite, what would you say?
I am more of an Ambedkarite, but Gandhi has undoubtedly had a huge influence on India and Indians. We must acknowledge that.
Gandhi insisted that everyone clean latrines in his ashram. He did not make exceptions for family and friends, nor any exemptions on grounds of caste, age and religion. Perhaps Ambedkar’s message has not created a social revolution, but have Gandhi’s attitudes been absorbed into our collective consciousness?
So which approach was more effective?
I am an Ambedkarite, but I appreciate many things about Gandhi. I always wear khadi. Gandhi was genuinely concerned for India’s peasants and workers, for women and children, for the poor and the downtrodden. He may not have had the answers but he did not hesitate to take on every single important problem of his time. He fought for independence from colonial rule and believed in non-violence. He lived his own message. We must admire and embrace Gandhi as much as Ambedkar.
What’s your view of the government’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission?
It is utterly useless because it simply does not make the link between sanitation, caste and patriarchy.
What is the basis of the campaign then?
Building toilets without supplying sufficient water or proper drainage, converting manual scavenging into ‘sanitation work’, failing to distinguish the tasks performed by women versus what men do — all of this makes the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan totally hollow. Manual scavenging is illegal, but India has not developed a mechanised way of cleaning waste even today, after 75 years of independence.
So manual scavenging, in your view, is not a type of paid sanitation service?
It is paid. So much so that many manual scavengers subcontract their work to others, and continue to accept payment from both government agencies and private individuals, whilst getting others to perform this dirty task. But we want people, especially women, to leave this work and we want to help them find alternatives, to be rehabilitated into mainstream society.
In South India it is easier, because the main employers are State governments and we can demand that they stop. In the North, most employment is in private households. In this situation, it is much more difficult to handle the problem. In Maharashtra and Bengal there is very little manual scavenging due to social awareness and because of the Dalit movement or leftwing politics, as the case may be.
Women say ‘No’
Are you linked to Dalit politics and to the figure of Ambedkar in any direct way?
Yes, Ambedkar is very important to our movement. It took me many years to understand that scavenging is a function of caste, not a form of productive work that has a role to play in the larger economic structure of society. I only realised this when I began to read Ambedkar, around the time of his birth centenary (1991).
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Babasaheb was the only one to advocate that Dalits, especially women, must absolutely abandon manual scavenging, that there is no justification for it. He taught us to see it for what it is: humiliation and discrimination. Others may have tried to claim dignity of labour in manual scavenging, or argued that it is a necessary part of human life in any social structure. Ambedkar took the veneer of respectability off this horrible practice.
Are you connected with a Dalit organisation, or with any political party?
No. We are not an organisation, not an NGO, not a party and not with any party. We are a movement. For me, India has nothing to celebrate and be proud of until each and every human being is free. Democracy and manual scavenging cannot co-exist. As long as there is manual scavenging, there is no real freedom in India.
Politicians think that manual scavenging is a mere policy issue. It is not. It is not about social welfare schemes, poverty alleviation or economic reform. It is not even about technological advancement or infrastructure development. We need to annihilate caste to be genuinely democratic. Politics is about a continuous unending ability to be critical, to speak the truth. The moment criticism stops, we are failing politically. That is why I say, I am not a social activist; I am a political activist. But I have never joined any political party.
So manual scavenging is a political question?
Yes. The issue is not that we lack the technology for good sanitation or that we need a stronger economy to leave this practice behind. It is a matter of political will. In independent India there is no party, no leadership that has demonstrated the political will to eliminate manual scavenging, which means annihilating caste and annihilating patriarchy.
The interviewer is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.