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'Casteist mindset will never allow them to find a solution for human scavenging'

Thursday, October 25, 2018
Photograph by Azad Shrivastav

From being born in a family of manual scavengers and experienced caste bias early in life to being instrumental through his crusade in bringing about a legislation in 1993 to eradicate manual scavenging, Bezwada Wilson, a 2016 Ramon Magsaysay award recipient, has come a long way. He tells Bhavna Uchil that the prevalence of manual scavenging is a challenge to our democracy.

Your motivation to take up this cause is understood, you are from a family of manual scavengers. You have seen it from close. Any particular incident that may have triggered you?
When I was young I did not know why we were doing this work, but later I understood that this is not happening accidentally, but the caste where we were born was dictating us to work like this.

I have seen women cleaning human excreta. There was an incident that happened before me where two men who were cleaning a pit, accidentally dropped their bucket into the sewage and then had to jump into the pit to retrieve the bucket. I cried on seeing this.

What is the status with the government maintaining statistics of number of manual scavengers?
Census of India has not collected the data on number of manual scavengers in all of India. After NITI Aayog intervened, they started collecting data in 169 districts from January 2018. They have identified approximately 56,000 manual scavengers already. But now they are contradicting their own data.

The 2013 Act provides for stringent punishment and fines for those building dry toilets or employing manual scavengers. In 2014 an SC order said that men should not be sent into sewers except in emergency situations and that too with protective gear. Are these being implemented?
Implementation is not at all happening. Not even one person has been convicted since 1993 when the law had first come into being. The 2013 law has provided for constituting vigilance and monitoring committees at different levels. But these have not been formed. Even where formed they are not functioning. No meetings are held.

Are the number of sewer deaths being documented?
Sewage and septic tank deaths are categorised as accidental deaths and police show that negligence is the reason for the death. But in these cases the employer must be charged with murder. As per the 2013 Act you cannot file complaint on the 'safai karamchari'. If a group enters the sewer, others who escape death are sometimes called for inquiry or arrested. In March 2014 SC has asked to identify sewer deaths across the country from 1993 onwards. No state governments have conducted such a survey. National Crime Records Bureau also does not have records of 'safai karamchari' deaths.

The Act also provides for rehabilitation in the form of financial assistance, scholarships for children of manual scavengers, etc.
Four years ago the budget for rehabilitation of manual scavengers was 570 crore, now it has come down to Rs 5 crore per annum. That itself shows clearly the government’s apathy towards women manual scavengers in the country.

What is the situation in Maharashtra?
In Maharashtra, in four to five districts manual scavenging still prevails. Septic tank cleaning is more in the state because of urbanisation and so is the number of sewer deaths.

Why is mechanisation not happening in a civic body like that of Mumbai, which is the country’s richest?
Civic bodies generally depend on the central government for technological advances. Secondly, their casteist mindset will never allow them to find a solution for human scavenging. They think that till humans are available, why should we think of anything else. Even if one or two die now and then, they don’t mind. Lives of Dalits don’t matter to them. The cost is not the problem if we compare it to the revenue of many state governments and municipalities. Problem is the lack of political will from the top. India works from top to down, never from down to top. Any order that comes from say PMO, will work very fast. Unfortunately the PMO is so silent on the issue of manual scavenging. In 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' manual scavengers are not included. 'Sab' is minus 'safai karamcharis'.

What are your comments on the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, which is focussing on building more toilets.
Swacch Bharat is only from the angle of people who are using toilets, not from the angle of those who are cleaning. Service providers and their rights not included in Swacch Bharat. It is ‘Users Bharat, not the service providers’ Bharat’. No thought has been put into drainage systems of these toilets. Their only construct is septic tanks and they have not thought about who is going to clean these toilets.

How do you look at your fight? Is it against manual scavenging or against the caste system?
We look at the issue through the lens of caste and patriarchy but we are questioning the government on the basis of democratic rights. The prevalence of manual scavenging is a challenge to Indian democracy.

What are the new challenges this fight is facing?
Twenty or 30 years back we thought the community is not ready. Later the community was ready, then media was not. When media was, the bureaucracy wasn’t. When bureaucracy was, judiciary and politicians threw up challenges. In the end there is no political will. Politicians and bureaucracy is the worst in India. Political bosses pass orders only for their own personal purpose, not for the wider good. They should look from the perspective of the most marginalised. That lens unfortunately no politician has in India. The present government is not doing anything. That I can say very clearly. Present government has been the worst, the least sympathetic to take action for the marginalised. They work for the corporates and are looking at the country from business lens. The State has lost the nature of welfare.

To what extent, in your opinion, has your struggle been successful?
We don’t go by numbers to measure success. I don’t think we have succeeded till even one women is engaged in manual scavenging in this country. Till that time we cannot say that we have been successful.

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