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India – “Swachh Bharat represents toilet users, not toilet cleaners”

Bezwada Wilson, national convenor, Safai Karamachari Andolan, and Magsaysay award winner explains how manual scavenging is a problem arising out of caste, class and patriarchy.

Bezwada Wilson, national convenor, Safai Karamachari Andolan, and Magsaysay award winner
Photo: Arun Kumar


As the government plans to build 12 crore toilets by 2019 under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, the Magsaysay award winner questions who will clean these toilets and how many people will die cleaning them. Explaining how manual scavenging is actually a problem arising out of caste, class and patriarchy, Wilson says that the government has failed to address either of these concerns in its cleanliness drive. 

What prompted you to take up the cause of sanitation workers?
I was born in a family of manual scavengers but was unable to understand the caste system and discrimination. My classmates often called me ‘thotti’ [which refers to a community whose members manually remove human excrement], but my mother explained that they referred to thotti [garbage dump in Telugu] close to our house [in the sweepers’ colony in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), Karnataka]. After class 4, I was shifted to a school in Kuppam, 29 km from KGF and across the border in Andhra Pradesh. There I realised that I am an untouchable and it is not possible to get rid of this identity.
Manual scavengers are not untouchables for the upper caste only; even the rest of the dalit community is not ready to treat them equally. These people have no names. They are either mehtar (male sweeper) or mehatrani (female sweeper) who enter the house from the backdoor.
After class 10, I came back to my home. I had to live and talk only with my community people because others were not ready to accept me as their friend. Most men in my colony were heavy drinkers and used to beat their wives and children. I strongly opposed this practice and started a social awareness programme. But some of them told me that they cannot work without alcohol. They challenged me to do that work [manual scavenging] without drinking. That was the first time I saw what my mother never wanted me to see — men and women carrying buckets of human waste and dumping them into a large pit. It was their job and they had no other option. That moment changed my life and I started working for the liberation of manual scavengers.

Why the law against manual scavenging has not been effective?

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1993 after India marked Babasaheb Ambedkar’s centenary in 1990. Before the onset of celebrations, the government had set up many committees to find out things that could be promised to dalits. One was the 1993 Act. Before this, we were working in Karnataka and several other states for the eradication of manual scavenging. We were in touch with many MPs. After the enactment of the 1993 Act, we felt we can do a bigger task because though the 1993 Act prohibits manual scavenging yet it had no effective plan for complete eradication.
When the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis was constituted [in 1993] we got enthusiastic but within two-three years it was clear that the Act was not going to change anything. When we went to file cases as per the Act, the police refused to register them. Senior advocates told us that it [the Act] is not a law but is like any other government scheme. There is no provision of punishment in the Act. It did not mention whom to punish. It only mentioned that the district collector or the DM or the deputy commissioner is responsible for filing a case on behalf of scavengers. But how can a commissioner file a case against himself? This is why no case was registered anywhere in the country.
So, we went to the supreme court in 2003. The court asked for modifications [in the Act] and issued a notice to the state governments to give the rules. Till 1996, the Act was not notified in the Gazette. It dealt with toilets and was not for the liberation of scavengers. Moreover, it was proposed by the housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry and not by the social justice and empowerment ministry. Because sanitation is a concurrent subject, states have to rectify the Act in their legislative assemblies. After rectification, they [states] had to notify areas in which they will eradicate manual scavenging and then they would have to cover the whole state. This never happened, not even in a single state. After a 2003 PIL in the SC, states have started amending and rectifying all those things. It went on till 2010, seven years after the SC order.
In 2010 we launched a Samajik Parivartan Yatra across the country, and we gave a memorandum to the then social justice and empowerment minister, Mukul Wasnik. He called us for a discussion and constituted four task forces. We discussed an amendment and gave recommendations, but by 2012 the government felt that instead of amending the old law it was better to make a new law. So, in 2013 it brought a new law which was slightly better than the previous one. But again, under this law too, if a public servant is not doing his/her duty, nobody has a right to file a case against him/her. That’s why not a single case has been filed in any police station in the country in the last 20 years. Indian bureaucracy always works for the rich. The poor, adivasis, minorities and other marginalised communities never get benefits from the bureaucracy. So after the 2013 Act we are again fighting to improve it. We still need modifications and an apology from the prime minister. If a historical mistake happened, as written in the preamble of Act, the prime minister must apologise to the community.
Are there any official statistics about the number of people employed in manual scavenging?

Since independence nobody has data about the manual scavengers. Many efforts have been made but none has given any result. We gave an estimate of 13 lakh. The government agreed but started subtracting from that figure and reached a figure of 6 lakhs. And after two-three years, in 2010 they announced that there were no scavengers left. But we have established that they are very much there.
Then in 2013 they agreed for a survey. By that time, the Census of India in 2011 had given the number of dry toilets, but the issue was the numbers of scavengers. Then they said they would do the survey in a different manner, and finally found the number not more than 1,000-2,000 for the whole country. How is it possible? Even cities like Meerut, Ghaziabad and Lucknow have more scavengers. Then they claimed that the socio-economic survey would clear the picture. But the data we are getting is unbelievable. So, the status is that the government has no data at all. But we have done sample surveys many times and submitted them to the courts, ministries and the prime minister.
According to our survey, there are not less than 1.6 lakh manual scavengers in the country, especially in states like UP, MP, Gujarat, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
Dry latrines still exist. Septic tank and sewer line workers have not enumerated anywhere. That is why Indian railways is also not giving the data of manual scavengers. When a train stops at any station and someone uses the toilet there is a scavenger to clean. This is so even in the stations in the nation’s capital.
The railway minister has announced plans to convert 500 train toilets into bio-toilets every year. At this speed, it will take 200-300 years. The budget shows that it is not on the priority list.
This is actually the problem of caste, but they don’t want to even count me or identify that I exist. You know how many TV sets are there in the country, how many scooters, how many cars, but you don’t know the number of scavengers.
It is claimed that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has brought focus on sanitation, but you have been critical of the scheme. Why and what changes you would suggest in the scheme?

Swachh means pure. The scheme is for ‘pure’ people. But we are saying that please talk about those who are cleaning Bharat for thousands of years. From the beginning, ‘pure’ represents the dominant caste and ‘pollution’ represents the dalits. So, Swachh Bharat represents the toilet users, there is no concern for toilet cleaners. It is an ideological problem.
The scheme is about the eradication of manual scavenging, but when you come to the programme, you will never find how it will be eradicated.
Actually, it is a caste-based occupation. Otherwise how come 100 percent of scavengers in the country are dalits? They may speak Hindi, Punjabi, Telugu, Urdu or any other language, but if they are doing scavenging they are dalits. In the individual dry latrine cleaning, 98 percent cleaners are women. So, it is the problem of the caste and patriarchy. The prime minister doesn’t want to address these two issues.
Without annihilation of the mindset based on caste and patriarchy, how can you make Bharat swachh? The government should think about the role of the people who are cleaning the country for the last 4,000 years. Some think that people are doing scavenging because they are dirty, poor and illiterate and don’t want to work hard. I gave 24 years of my life to establish the reality. With the understanding of the ideology of Marx and Ambedkar, we have established that the problem comes down to caste, class, and patriarchy, but the PM is not touching caste, class, and patriarchy [issues] and has declared that India will become swachh in 2019.
On August 15, manual scavenging killed four men in Hyderabad. If the country is so technologically advanced, claiming to be a superpower, then why are there no machines to clean the sewer or septic tanks? They never think of it because they believe it is the work of dalits. The parliamentary standing committee asked me, “You are giving lectures. Where is the solution?” The secretaries of eight ministries in a joint meeting asked me, “Can you suggest which technology we can use the next?” This means that people who are doing this inhuman work for centuries have to invent or develop the technology too. They don’t do this as they are upper caste people. If ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation] could be established to launch rockets and satellite, another ISRO – Indian Sanitation Research Organisation – can also be established.
The planning commission has allotted Rs 4,650 crore for five years to rehabilitate safai karmcharis. In 2011-12, Rs 570 crore was released but the new government has reduced it to Rs 10 crore for 2016-17 – whereas Rs 11,000 crore are given to Swacch Bharat mission. So, I am questioning the priority. In the last two years, 1,370 people died while cleaning the sewers. We have a simple question, “Mr prime minister, when are you going to stop killing us?” Because these deaths are not accidental. Everyone knows that there is always a threat to life when anybody goes to clean the underground drain or septic tank. But 12 crore toilets by 2019 means 12 crore septic tanks. How many people will die to clean them?
How do you view the events in Gujarat, and the dalits’ pledge not to lift carcasses of animals?

Dalits have taken a stand in Una. We are not saying that we are doing it for 4,000 years, now you do it for 400 years. Dalits are saying, “This is your cow, if it is your mata, then please clean yourself. You don’t throw it on me.” It is neither reactionary nor revolutionary; it is just a question of common justice. It is amazing that dalits cannot touch their [upper castes’] cow, but they have to carry the dead cow and bury them. Do you think dalits are slaves?
You successfully created a division among human beings. You say that brahmins are superior, then kshatriya, vaishya, and the untouchables are nowhere. It is baseless. But you made the whole country believe that. Even dalits believed that. The constitution says very clearly that we are equal.
Fundamentalism is dangerous for democracy. At least dalits have come out in the streets to resist, but it is a very small development. The outburst for the mass killing and atrocities has not come yet. Even the prime minister is silent about the atrocities. Suddenly, he became emotional and said, ‘You shoot me, not my dalit brothers’. How can a prime minister talk like this? He must speak like a prime minister, not as ‘pradhan sewak’. He can be a ‘pradhan sewak’ for BJP and RSS, but not for the country. When atrocities on dalits were happening, he should have said, “You cannot beat or kill anyone, otherwise law will take its course. The rule of law is supreme.” So stop this drama and ban the ‘go-rakshaks’ and their ideological supporters.
There are rumours that you refused a Padma award. Is it true?

Many people have offered many things to me, not just the present government. Normally ministries give the recommendation for the awards. I also received emails to fulfill the formalities, but I stopped going to them and also stopped receiving their phone calls. You make my own people clean your shit and offer me the Padma award. How can I accept this? I am not fighting for the Padma, I am fighting for the liberation of my own people and that liberation will liberate the whole India. We want this azaadi [freedom].
Nowadays slogans of azaadi lead to sedition charges. But we have to understand that there is a political azaadi, there is a cultural azaadi, a social and economic azaadi. We are fighting for these. You come with the Padma award or something else, which I cannot accept. Another thing is, as long as the prime minister doesn’t apologise to the community for the ‘historical mistake’ [to make people manual scavengers] I am not going to receive anything from the government. If an apology could be rendered for Operation Bluestar, why not one for the atrocities against dalits for more than 4,000 years?

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Comment (1)


    The aim of ‘ swachch’ or pure is to keep upper- castes ‘ pure’ by making the dalits clean ‘ impure’ waste of the upper-caste. While lot of money is being spent on business corporates, no significant money is being allocated for mechanising scavenging work. As pointed out rightly, the development favours only upper- caste male hegemonical order.

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