On many occasions, the Ramon Magsaysay Award has been bestowed on individuals of various ilks and ideological persuasions. For the first time, perhaps, it speaks to an issue that touches the lives of millions of people because an award for Bezwada Wilson (50) is an international acknowledgement of the cause of the people who have been forced for generations, by an inhuman system of caste-ordained occupation, to handle the human waste of a structurally apathetic society. Before leaving for Manila to receive the award on August 31, Wilson spoke to the media about the only thing he cares for: “reclaiming for the Dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright,” as the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation put it. Excerpts from the conversation Uttam Sengupta had with the national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA):
Have you ever come across anyone other than Dalits engaged in manual scavenging?
Practically no one. This is a caste-based occupation. There could be one or two cases of people from the OBC category, but almost exclusively, it’s untouchables who are engaged in this unclean work. When drains get clogged or sewers are to be cleaned, then only a certain kind of people are sought out. During the tsunami, there were bodies of both human beings and animals submerged in water. But even volunteers would look back and ask for the Dalits and ‘safai karamcharis’ to do the job. It is like caste-based slavery.
What was the impact of the Supreme Court order for compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the families of those who died since 1993 while cleaning sewers?
There has been no significant headway in terms of implementation. Two years have passed since the Supreme Court order to the government to identify people who died since 1993. But neither the central government nor the states have carried out any study or survey so far. We have compiled a list of 1,370 people who died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the last two years and handed them over to the government from the municipal commissioner upwards, but nothing has moved. Yes, thanks to the media the bureaucrats are more aware now.
So, are you suggesting that no compensation has been paid to anyone since the order in 2014?
As far as we know, families of 26 people have been given compensation so far in Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But only eight families received the promised Rs 10 lakh each, while others were paid something between Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh each. The Chennai Municipal Corporation, in fact, adopted a resolution against the apex court’s order, saying that Rs 3 lakh will be paid in the case of safai karmacharis who die while cleaning sewers.
Did your organisation take it up with the Tamil Nadu government?
During discussions, the Tamil Nadu government officials asked why they should pay for people not employed by the government but by contractors, municipalities and housing societies. We had to tell them that it was the responsibility of the State to protect the lives of citizens. Septic tanks exist because they have failed to provide a functional, underground sewage system. And when the government has no problem paying compensation for lives lost in accidents, natural calamities, stampedes at temples or at the Kumbh Mela, why are there such qualms in the case of manual scavengers?
What do you believe is the reason?
When it comes to paying the poor, bureaucrats in this country behave as if the money is going out of their own pocket. They have no difficulty in paying, waiving dues and helping the rich industrialists and businessmen. But in the case of manual scavengers, the Tamil Nadu government went up to the Supreme Court to complain that the court’s order was not clear. The court dismissed it saying no further clarification was required. The reluctance to pay the compensation amounts to contempt of court and we will be moving petitions soon.
Women working as manual scavengers in a Meerut village
You have claimed that during the last decade-and-a-half, almost one-and-a-half million manual scavengers have moved away from the occupation. What would they be doing?
Look, this is such a large country that there are many options available. But it is not easy for manual scavengers to build another career. It is also possible that many of them may have gone back to scavenging. The trouble is that the government does not acknowledge the existence of manual scavenging. In their affidavits, they always claim there are no manual scavengers in the country. That one disclaimer absolves them of all responsibilities. There is no study or survey by the Centre or the states.
But the government does have a budget earmarked for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.
Yes, the schemes offer loans for manual scavengers to manage toilets! But that is the whole point. They don’t want to be engaged in this occupation. They want to get out of it. But even government schemes for their rehabilitation (the budget has been slashed from over Rs 4,000 crore to Rs 10 crore this year) do not provide a way out.
What about the Indian Railways? It must be the single largest employer of scavengers and safai karamcharis.Surely there are people from all castes employed by the railways?
I am not aware of any survey done by the railways. Officially, it claims to have no manual scavenger. But my experience is that the human excreta is cleared almost exclusively by Dalits and Adivasis. My own elder brother, who is now 65 years old, has done it at a railway station all his life and he says he has not seen any change in all these years.
We have been reading about the railways introducing biodegradable toilets and new technology...
There are 1.78 lakh coaches used by the Indian Railways. And the minister is talking of making toilets in 500 coaches biodegradable. They have tried different methods in the past. Most long-distance trains arrive at junctions early in the morning and although passengers are not supposed to use the toilets when the trains are stationary, it is not always possible. So the tracks are to be cleaned because otherwise the stink would pervade the stations. They have tried cemented aprons and also a ‘controlled toilet discharge system’ in which the engine driver would pull a lever to open the hatch below the coaches. But they have not worked. So, they still need people with brooms and baskets to clean the tracks at the stations.
Has any government agency ever consulted you, or sought your suggestions for a solution?
All the time. Even in the parliamentary standing committee, I was told not to be so angry but come up with a solution. It’s like saying, “My job is to shit and go away; now it’s your problem to see what or how you dispose it.” The attitude is, “I am pure; I am swachh, ours is a swachh Bharat...we cannot exercise our mind to find solutions to deal with impurities. So, Bezwada Wilson, you suggest a solution.”
Have you ever suggested one?
I have told them what I know. There are many places in the world where they have advanced, underground sewerage in place. But, in this country, there is not a single town where we have a proper system in place. Yet we talk of smart cities and bullet trains. Look, sewerage is a basic necessity. It cannot be postponed. So address it first.
Surely there are sensitive bureaucrats and more responsive civic bodies.
When I meet them these days, they are always very polite, attentive and say how ‘mahaan’ (great) I am. But they do practically nothing. No district magistrate ever responds to us when we point out the existence of, say, dry latrines and request them to inspect them on the spot. In Meerut, I remember the DM saying that he would visit the place the next day. But he never visited the place in the next one year.
So, there’s not even one sensitive bureaucrat?
Well, there was this commissioner in Haryana who did step out. In his report, he mentioned that in compliance with the court’s order, he had inspected a certain area and found 32 women cleaning 72 dry latrines. But none of them, he mentioned, was carrying excreta in baskets on their head. Therefore, he concluded, there was no manual scavenger in the area. Now, this IAS officer does not realise that the law mentions neither ‘head’ nor ‘tail’. It defines manual scavenging clearly enough. Anyone cleaning, carrying and disposing others’ shit is engaged in manual scavenging. Even when we submit copies of the SC order by hand to all the officials, they refuse to see the letter or spirit of the law. In one district, we handed over copies of the order 286 times but with zero effect.
Can the Supreme Court’s order be defied so brazenly?
Ours is a beautiful democracy. Any scavenger can question the government, DM or the chief secretary. In the higher courts, every state is represented by several legal luminaries. And often DMs file affidavits denying the existence of dry latrines and manual scavenging, accusing us of misleading the court. In some cases, the dry latrines we mentioned in the petition are demolished and the state officials ask the court to take action against us for filing false affidavits. There are no full stops in this country.
What have you been able to achieve then?
I feel a sense of satisfaction for having democratised the process in some way. Every district magistrate in the country had to answer. Women scavengers met each of the collectors and handed over a copy of the Supreme Court’s order, reminding them that it was their responsibility to liberate and rehabilitate the workers. Many officers were caught by surprise and everyone gave an assurance. That makes me happy.