Ramon Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson.   | Photo Credit: C.V. Subrahmanyam

When writer Perumal Murugan met Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson, they spoke about work, dignity and being human

Bezwada Wilson has been fighting for the eradication of manual scavenging for three decades now. Born in Kolar, Karnataka, to a family of manual scavengers, he founded the Safai Karmachari Andolan in 1994 with retired IAS officer S.R. Sankaran and Dalit activist Paul Diwakar. On August 15 this year, around 1 in the morning, Wilson had just returned to his home in Delhi after looking into the deaths of two manual scavengers. I was staying with him, and we fell into a long conversation. Even at that hour, he did not sound tired. Excerpts:

I believe two manual scavengers died today…

Yes, two. Last week, three died. Not just in Delhi, they are dying everywhere. This is not new to me. But only now have we begun attaching significance to their lives. On March 27, 2017, the Supreme Court delivered a verdict in the 12-year-long case filed by Safai Karmachari Andolan against the Central and State governments.

The verdict said no person should be involved in manual scavenging. It said technology should be used and, if the involvement of humans is inevitable, safety measures should be put in place. Till date, neither safety measures nor equipment has been implemented.

In 1993, manual scavenging was officially banned. In 2014, the court ruled that families of all victims should be awarded a compensation of ₹10 lakh. We documented the deaths of 1,470 manual scavengers, but several of them don’t have valid documents.

There’s an issue with death certificates too, with several not stating the exact reason of death. When a person dies in manual scavenging, an FIR must be filed but often it doesn’t happen. We haven’t been able to get compensation for some families because of all this.

Then we realised something. What are we really doing now? We wait till someone dies, and try to get ₹10 lakh for the family. We have begun counting deaths. How can this be right? Something should be done to stop the deaths. So we raised slogans saying stop killing us! Today, we struggle to stop anyone from becoming a scavenger.

Some argue that manual scavengers choose to do this job. Nobody — absolutely nobody — can be happy cleaning human faeces with their bare hands. Political morbidity is stopping technology from being introduced in this field. Only political will can make it happen. That is why we call this a murder by the government. Our aim is to stop it.

You mentioned that nine persons died in a month. Were they all manual scavengers?

Yes, in both underground sewers and septic tanks. Everything has now been handed over to contractors. When a problem arises, the contractors say they engage workers only on contract basis. They wash their hands off the deaths. But it is not that easy. The responsibility of the preliminary works lies with Delhi Jal Board or the Municipality.

When did you begin thinking about doing something for them, standing with them?

It is difficult to recollect the exact day. It took me some time to realise that I was born in the same caste. My parents and brother were doing the same work. There were 118 houses in our locality, all doing the same job. Wherever they went — corporation, municipality or gold fields — no other jobs were available to them. There were different sections, like latrines, sewers, drains, but they were doing the same work.

My parents did not want me doing the same job. They sent me to school. I grew up feeling ashamed of mentioning caste. Whenever we played, the other kids called me thotti (manual scavenger). I asked my mother why and she said it was because there was a thotti or bin near our home.

Later, when I started teaching children and women, I realised there were constant fights in their homes. I realised it was the men’s drinking that was behind the fights. They begin drinking at 9 in the morning. I decided to talk to them. I began to engage them in games like cricket and football.

Then one day they told me I would never understand their real issue. They had to drink to forget the ignominy of their job. I argued. I told them women did the work without drinking. “We drink in daylight, they drink at night,” they said. I realised they were speaking the truth. Only then I asked: “You are drinking to do this work. Will you stop drinking if you get another job?”

Finally, one day, I accompanied one of them to work. At one place, the man I had accompanied put a bucket inside the tank to collect the waste. The bucket fell down. So he put his hand inside to get the bucket. I couldn’t understand what was happening. The bucket could still not be found. So he got inside to look for it. I was looking at him — he was inside the excreta like a kid playing in mud.

I walked up and shouted, ‘What kind of job is this? What are you doing? Come up.’ He refused. “We will talk later. Stay away,” he said. I went up to the others, held their hands and said they shouldn’t be doing this. They told me their hands were ‘dirty’ and I should stay away.

I was only 18 or 19 at that time. They pushed me away. I stood there, confused. I cried and begged. I told them they were human beings and this was not fair. I fell to the ground and began crying loudly.

An old woman came close and asked me why I was creating a scene. I told her I would get up only if they promised not to do this job. The woman’s name was Pichamma. I begged Pichamma to ask them to stop working. “This boy is crying, he says it is wrong. Isn’t that true? Come out,” she said. “Even if I come out now, I have to do the job tomorrow,” the man said. But they did stop and they came out.

Pichamma, by now in tears, told me, “Look at my hands, look at my life.” She was the first person to say I was right. I held her tight and started crying. “Stop crying” she said. “You are doing the right thing. No one is brave enough to do this. They are after food. What food? After doing this work, we cannot even eat properly. We chew betel leaves and sit around. What kind of life is this?”

When I reached home, I asked my parents whether they are aware of all this. They asked me what was new.

How had they managed to hide the existence of this practice from you?

I did know a bit of it, of course, but I had never seen it. My father had retired in 1976, my mother doesn’t work. My brother lied that he was a tractor driver; that’s how he got married. Once my sister-in-law said a bad smell was emanating from him. He told her it could be because he was driving a tractor used in manual scavenging. My brother would always iron his pants, he can’t write but he would scribble a ‘signature’. There was a huge difference between the work he was doing and the way he projected himself.

I had never had direct experience of the work. That day, I left home at six and roamed through the night. I wondered what I could possibly do.

I thought of dying. Dying was easy, living wasn’t, I thought. I was standing in front of a water tank. It had a tap that would go shhh when the water flowed. I thought I should ask this flowing water about my decision. It continued to say shhh, shhh. I thought it was telling me not to die.

I rose. It was now dawn. The light spread in less than a minute. I was excited to see the dark sky break into light for the first time in my life. The sky was completely transformed. “Sky!” I said. “I am in deep distress. There are so many people under you, tell each of them that this is terrible. No human being should suffer this shame. Will you?”

What did you do after that?

I followed the people doing this work, talked to them, asked about their lives. After some time, people began to recognise me. A person called Basavalingappa spoke about it. He told me about Kuvempu, the Kannada poet. Kuvempu wrote a story, ‘Jalagaararu’, where Shiva offers sermons and a thotti is sitting at a distance listening. Thottis should not hear it, right, but Kuvempu wrote in his story that Shiva went and spoke to the thotti. We told this to our people.

As days passed, I started getting calls. People believed I was talking real issues. I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, telling him it was dangerous to involve human beings in manual scavenging. I filled the remaining page with the word ‘Stop’. Then I wrote to the director of Kolar Gold Fields. There was no response. After a week, we wrote another letter warning him of legal consequences if no action was taken against manual scavenging. This time, we got a response, saying they had reduced the number of manual scavengers.

I showed the letter to everyone in the village. The letter said ₹18 lakh was allotted for building toilets. I counted the toilets in the town; they did not match the amount allotted for.

I wrote another letter. I found someone to take pictures. The director was worried now. P.S. Rao of St. Johns Medical College in Bengaluru wrote a column on me in The New Indian Express. Then a big article was published in a Bangalore newspaper titled ‘Shame’.

At an event attended by Ramakrishna Hegde and Deve Gowda, we handed out copies of this article along with a letter. Karnataka was then ruled by the Janata Party and the Centre by the Congress. Since Kolar came under the Centre, the State accused the Centre of supporting untouchability. They made me a hero overnight.

In the next few days, officials demolished the dry toilets and built new ones. Autos and cows were provided as alternative employment.

I was a bit overwhelmed. What else did I need now? I had wanted toilets to stop manual scavenging, and that had happened. So I left. And began my journey on a cycle.

I went around Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. I met an IAS officer called S.R. Shankar. He taught me about movements and how to work. Slowly, some others and I began to engage with the government. We worked without a name for over a decade. In 1992, we called it Safai Karamchari Andolan. We took out rallies. Till date, we have about 6,000 volunteers. Of them, 200 are full-time. After I got the Magsaysay award, more people are volunteering. Doctors, engineers, scientists are keen to work with us.

We have no identities. Yesterday, a Muslim passed away. We went to the qabar, where someone wanted to know if we were Muslims. “You said you were related to him,” he said. I told him every human being killed by cleaning a septic tank in this country is my relative.

Even today, 1.6 lakh human beings do this work in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa. The government simply doesn’t admit it.

A majority of us still thinks manual scavenging only existed when dry latrines were used; not anymore.

Dry latrines still exist. In places in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kashmir and Uttaranchal, dry latrines still exist. The system of scavengers carrying human waste on their heads also exists. Of course, not everywhere. Sometimes, they use buckets or Dalda or paint tins. According to our statistics, 1.6 lakh people are still doing this job. Our statistics are close to the truth.

After the flush system was introduced, every house has a septic tank. The municipality is not equipped with proper equipment to clean these. There should be at least 50 machines in a place where five lakh people live. But they have one or two machines. At least 80% of municipalities don’t have even one. In these places, human beings manually clean the septic tanks.

Deaths occur when men are sent into underground sewers to clean them when something gets stuck or blocks the drains. It happens over and over again.

Indian Railways has 1.74 lakh coaches with toilets that open on to the tracks. Human beings are employed to remove the waste from the tracks.

By 2019, they have planned to construct 21,000 toilets. If there is no suction technology, who will go down the septic tanks to clean them? These issues must be thought through.

What do you think is stopping the government from using machines?

The people who do the work are from Scheduled Castes and marginalised communities. Their voices are never strong. They don’t have political representation. Using machines requires money. For politicians, departments that fetch commissions and vote banks are more important.

They say issues like manual scavenging are not national issues. Love for nation and language is considered a national feeling.

The second issue is that society sees nothing wrong in a thotti doing scavenging work. People think that is their job and what is wrong with that.

Like farming, like women’s housework, thottis are doing their job. Such an outlook is deep-rooted. We would understand these issues if we could get rid of caste affinity and jingoism. But we are besieged by these two emotions.

After the 90s, there has been a reawakening of Dalit movements. Are they focussing on these issues? What exactly is their contribution?

That Arundhathiyars should speak of their problems, Paraiyars should speak of theirs, Pallars of theirs… People said Dalit movements should go beyond their issues and talk about general issues too. That happened.

Ambedkar said these issues could be resolved if we follow his path. We too have his portrait in our office. The Constitution drafted by him speaks of liberty, equality and fraternity. We have not even started on liberty. Equality and fraternity come much later. How can everyone be equal here? How can a maid sit with us and have dinner? Our sense of equality is so poor.

For us, fraternity is possible only within the caste. India is a fraternal society.There is a Brahmin society, a Reddy society and a Dalit society. Within each society, there is a sense of fraternity, but they don’t want to come out of that circle.

India has 6,40,000 villages. There is no single village without caste. Each caste lives in a different area. We still don’t allow everyone to live together. We don’t feel fraternal. If we did, systems like manual scavenging would disappear on their own.

Why is there no technology for sanitation?

Sanitation is reserved for Dalits. So there is no development in that field. We have apps to deliver food home without involving human beings but they can’t discover a technology to clear human waste. Caste is the reason behind this discrimination.

Deification of this work is another major crime. By calling them ‘amma’, you actually want them to keep cleaning. Gandhi said the same thing. He said he wanted to be reborn in the family of a manual scavenger. But we think nobody should be a manual scavenger. Even Narendra Modi says manual scavenging is spiritual. If it is so exhilarating an experience, why don’t you do it?

Mani is from Coimbatore. He was a driver. He drove a tractor used for manual scavenging work. He retired this July. When I spoke to him, he said: “Look, this is a terrible job. I could have died anytime. I am surprised how I worked so long and came out of this. I think nobody should do this job. If there is rebirth, I should never be born a manual scavenger again.”

Every field has extensive research, but in sanitation, no research is ever done. We are over 130 crore people, we defecate every day. We have a caste to clean it up. We don’t even think about it.

You were honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay award. Tell us about it.

It was hard. I found it very disturbing. I didn’t know what to do. Of course, many people have been awarded before me. I have refused many awards including those given by the government. Those times, I have left Delhi without carrying my cell phone. I am merely a representative. I won’t go anywhere without my people who work in the field.

One lakh sanitation workers in North India said they would quit their job and demanded compensation and rehabilitation. In Rajasthan, people left this job. I went to them and said they were brave. I told them I cannot speak their language but I am happy they have taken this decision. If someone has to be awarded, it is them. The people who have left their jobs. I can perhaps stand as the last person in that line. But they deserve this award.

Translated by Kavitha Muralidharan from the Tamil interview published in Kalachuvadu this month.