‘We cannot let this country be a place where the poor pay to shit.’
That is inhuman and unacceptable.’

Open defecation, a human tragedy in India

Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner for 2016 and national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, speaks to Nitin Sethi and Kumar Akash on the visible Dalit anger in India today, and his own struggle to end manual scavenging in India.

Why do we see so much Dalit protests and anger in Gujarat today? Dalit oppression is not a new phenomenon.

We were always oppressed by this majoritarian caste-imposing society, but we found some safety in the state. But in Gujarat and in other places, we find now both the State and this society have become one and are in cahoots against us.

For us, particularly Dalits and the minorities, we always have one hope — we can go to the police stations, anti-poor as they maybe. But today, we find even the police stations are not safe for us.

These temporary shelters of the State are also not available. We have no options left.

Is this a reaction then?

It is an act of compulsion. We are saying we will not clean your shit, your sewer lines and your toilets anymore. We will not pick your dead cows anymore.

We are not saying we have washed your shit for centuries and now you wash ours.

Dalits are not asking for justice. They are merely saying you can’t exploit us any further.

We are not making a demand on anyone, are we? You make a demand when you ask someone to do something. They expect us to continue doing this and then also beat us up freely.

You are referring to the gau rakshaks…

There is a cow. They decide to call it gau mata (mother cow). Then they decide to call it their mother. It is their belief.

Well, let them take care of their belief. So, all we are saying is if you believe it’s your gau mata, pray to it if you want, take care of it while it is alive; and, also when it is dead.

We are not telling them to stop praying the cow. This notion of holy cow is totally irrational and unscientific just as the sheer irrationality behind the caste system and patriarchy in our country.

We are not saying we have washed your shit for centuries and now you wash ours.

But why this sharp reaction, particularly in Gujarat?

This is my assessment. See, elsewhere, some people could still have some expectations from this government that it shall bring some development. But in Gujarat, Dalits, who are in a minority, have seen this so-called Gujarat model fail them entirely.

Now, with the central and state governments being of the same party, there is no place to seek redress. They shouldn’t divert and ask why protests here and not there.

Don’t tell me we can’t have politics. Don’t they have politics to attain power? Of course ours is a political cause to achieve something. It’s not a social movement or a religious organisation.

It is a political and democratic movement asking for the State to restore its function and provide the changes.

It can’t be so in this era that on August 15, as the Indian flag rises up, Dalits are sent down by them into the sewers to die and beaten up on the streets for cleaning their dirt.

It is not as if Dalits gained much under previous Congress governments…

We know all political parties are almost the same for us in their apathy. The Congress, when in power, has some kind of shame and concern and the State comes to the rescue when things get excessive. Nothing much else. And then you must remember there are all kinds of factions in the Congress. In that we find some spaces.

Has the Left been any better?

You must remember this is the Indian Left. It also comes out of the same Indian society. It’s not Marx’s Left.

If they have not been able to do away with patriarchy and caste in their own systems, how can one expect more?

Yet, I must say, it is with the Left and its ideology that we find solidarity. They are, over time, realising their follies, I think, and looking at correctives.

They accuse the right-wing groups of appropriating our leaders, appropriating Babasaheb Ambedkar. But I wonder did they do anything to accommodate the views of the Ambedkarites? Not really.

This monolithic push of the State and the caste oppressors is bringing many together.

So explain to us the key thrusts of the Dalit upsurge that we see at the moment?

If you see really, all we are saying is practise democracy that the framers of our Constitution and our freedom fighters wanted us to. We cannot let our democracy, rule of law and the State to be so weak.

The prime minister says ‘don’t shoot them, shoot me.’ What is this? Is he or the State so weak today?

Aren’t he and the State powerful enough to say, ‘if you attack them the law shall deal with you strictly and you shall be punished?’ Isn’t the State there to do so? Can’t he enforce the rule of law?

These are theatrics. We don’t want a sevak (servant), pradhan (prime) or not.

This language of being an Ambedkar bhakt and sevak is all reinforcing the hierarchies of caste and appropriating us in the caste system.

We have been your servants long enough to not want servants. We want a prime minister and a State that functions and protects our freedom.

You often mention patriarchy and caste as the two evils. Do explain.

Both are illogical and unscientific. Sadly, Dalit men, too, do not understand this, but we are in the same boat. I don’t think caste can be broken without breaking patriarchy.

Even among those who do manual scavenging, more than 85 per cent of the less paying jobs are with women and the more paying and secure ones — say in railways — are with men.

The level of violence is intolerable. But who else can understand the position of a woman in a patriarchal society better than a Dalit in the caste system?

In both cases the powerful have built structural and social devices to retain an irrational and immoral power over the other.

Tell us a little about the efforts to end manual scavenging in the country.

There has always been an attempt not to admit to our (manual scavengers) existence and make us disappear. Make us the unseen.

After years we got a final judgment from the Supreme Court in 2014. But has manual scavenging ended? No.

You ran a campaign in 2010 to break illegal dry toilets.

We tried, but we couldn’t entirely. We did break many symbolically. We are going to start a campaign in this October again. We shall go break them wherever they are. But what do you do when the government has decided to instead make 12 crore (120 million) more toilets in a hurry without sewer lines and connectivity under the Swachh Bharat Mission?

Without the sewer lines, the system and technology to treat the sewage it only means the government expects more of us to go down to clean the septic tanks.

Each toilet shall mean another septic tank for a Dalit to clean. Where is the investment and technology to end this horrendous practice?

You won’t believe even the rehabilitation fund for the manual scavengers has shrunk. Two years ago it was Rs 570 crore (Rs 5.7 billion). Today it is only Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million). Then the SBM is setting up pay-for public toilets for the poor now.

Do you really want the poor in the country to pay even to shit?

The water anyway costs them proportionately more than it costs the rich. Now they shall also have to spend from the little they earn to excrete!

Let the President of India, the prime minister and all those who sit in Parliament pay proportionate to their income each time they use a toilet.

We cannot let this country be a place where the poor pay to shit. That is inhuman and unacceptable.

But it is in this ecosystem that we all at the Safai Karamchari Abhiyan are working to end the curse of manual scavenging in India. It requires more than just breaking toilets. It requires breaking the mindset.