Dalit History Month: Centre continues to invisibilise Dalits, false-worshipping Ambedkar, says Bezwada Wilson

A lifelong crusader against manual scavenging, Wilson estimates 500 deaths through manual scavenging in last 5 years, 17 in the last month

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amarabati Bhattacharyya

First-hand witness to the caste-based profession of his parents, Bezwada Wilson began his fight to end manual scavenging in 1986. Because 75 years after India’s independence, the outlawed practice still continues. 

In 1993, the Parliament enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which prohibited the construction of dry latrines and outlawed the practice of manual scavenging. Despite the ban, the practice continues across India. 

The following year, in 1994, Bezwada instituted the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a grassroots human rights organisation that amplified its founder’s aim. Bezwada and the SKA filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India, naming all states, government departments—railways, defence, education—and the judiciary as violators of the ban in 2003. The case became a turning point in the larger Dalit rights movement. 

In 2016, Bezwada was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his contribution in “reclaiming for the Dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright”. 

However, as the inherently inhuman practice of manual scavenging continues to plague the nation to this day, SKA’s fight continues—empowered by the community of Dalits that Bezwada has assembled over three decades. On the eve of Ambedkar Jayanti, Wilson speaks to the National Herald.

As a crusader against manual scavenging and the systemic discrimination it imposes on Dalits, where do you think the Dalit rights movement has reached today? 

The Dalit rights movement is progressing from strength to strength, but the real problem is the government in power. They are not recognising or respecting the voices of the Dalits. As the movement builds, so does the anger. 

In 2021, the people in power claimed that there were no deaths in the past 5 years. I can tell you that over 500 people died then and there have been 17 deaths [from manual scavenging] since March 21 this year because of septic tank cleaning. 

However, today the Dalits have decided not to stay quiet. Now they are vocal and are able to immediately express their anger. Their voice is louder than ever. However, the Centre continues to invisibilise Dalits in all of its policies.  

The Dalit community believes in the constitutional framework. The government is, however, unwilling to abide by the Constitution. Dalits wish to resolve their problems within the constitutional framework, but the government is only listening when the problem comes down to law and order. The government’s refusal to listen sets back the movement in a very significant way, because as much as we [the Dalit community] protest, the real consequence or reward of the movement will arrive when the government listens.  

There is progress, of course, but even after 35 years of struggle, human beings are still cleaning toilets—and manual scavenging is at the root of Dalit oppression. It deprives Dalits of the human experience itself.  

The Centre continues to invisibilise Dalits in all of their policies

You’ve often said that manual scavenging cannot be considered sanitation work because it is deeply entrenched in caste slavery. Yet savarna Indians don’t seem to understand this... 

Everybody knows that manual scavenging is a crime, but since the government itself neglects this crime, the awareness of society is inconsequential.  

[However,] manual scavenging is entrenched in caste oppression, whereas sanitation work stems from class vulnerability. Those who clean excreta with their own hands are manual scavengers; those who enter sewers and empty septic tanks to clean others’ filth and put their lives at risk are manual scavengers. Manual scavengers are not given the protection that sanitation workers are. Manual scavengers are people who directly clean unsanitary dry latrines. Manual scavengers are in the literal pits of the caste hierarchy.

Manual scavenging is not just a social problem, it is political in nature. We need a political solution for even a social problem, and here, it is the politicisation of the Dalit community that results in their societal oppression.  

You cannot expect the society in which child marriages are still happening, despite the Sharda Act from 1929, to understand [on their own]. The solution has to come from the top—it has to be a political decision to eradicate social evils. You cannot expect civil society to prevent all regressive practices, no matter their progressiveness or their awareness.  

You’ve also been critical of the government’s Swachh Bharat mission. Tell us why. 

The Swachh Bharat Mission is all about the construction of more toilets—it provides the facility of toilets to toilet-less people. This sets back any liberation and rehabilitation attained by the manual scavengers because 12 crore toilets installed under the mission have to be cleaned by manual scavengers. The mission is not emancipating anyone; it is a mere toilet construction project which furthers the societal oppression against Dalits.

When the Prime Minister asks everyone to pick up the broom and clean, it is an insult and a dismissal of the safai karmacharis who have been cleaning all their lives, infinitely intertwined with the broom. The PM was trying to divert the attention of the people with this elaborate mission with a huge budget while neglecting the struggle of the Dalits. Who was actually cleaning the newly built toilets? Manual scavengers. 

Do you think conversations around the Dalit struggle have become more prominent now in comparison with when you began your movement?  

Yes, of course, the consciousness of the people—non-Dalit and upper castes—has tremendously increased towards our pain and struggle. At present, nobody can say, "So what’s the big deal if manual scavengers are cleaning our excreta?" 

On a fundamental level, the conversation around the Dalit struggle has received a momentum, fuelled by upper-caste solidarity, [that] can no longer be halted or overturned. People are now sensitised to the astronomical differences between us and them. [However,] the awareness does not translate into real action, the awareness remains limited to conversations. 

Indian society has not reached that stage, where their progressive ideology will lead them to take matters into their own hands. They have not yet learnt to say, “No, we cannot let a human being clean our excreta.” They cannot stop it from happening when orders are coming from [the] top.  

When the law enforcement agencies that have been given the power to make changes are silent, what will the common people do? 

You’ve been running the Safai Karmachari Andolan since 1994. What did it take to start the movement and how are you not disheartened after so long? 

SKA started in 1994, but my fight began in 1982—when I first spoke out against the heinous crime of manual scavenging publicly, when I wrote to the chief minister of Karnataka, when I began writing to several ministers. Back then, I was joined by only one or two other Dalit voices, because everyone else was terrified of coming out in a public forum and protesting against Dalit oppression. They were in solidarity with the movement secretly. Today, I am backed by thousands and thousands of voices. Today my fight envelops a much larger section of society.  

Today, the women who are manual scavengers—who are intersectionally oppressed for generations, who are compelled to clean dry latrines, discard placentas post deliveries, clean sewage against their will—have built up the courage to come out [on] the streets and burn the basket [of excreta] and [to] state that “we are scavengers not because we have chosen this, you made us scavengers because of caste and patriarchal oppression”. These women made civil society and the government understand their pain, they made the government to immediately address their pain, they went to the Supreme Court and made them revise the [Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition)] Act twice.  

There has been an exponential increase in the display of courage from our end, and progressively everybody is joining hands with the SKA; but the irony is that Dalits are still cleaning excreta with their own hands even after 75 years of independence and 35 years of relentless protest.  

The Prime Minister is sending Indians to space, investing in bullet trains and talking about tigers, but where are the safai karmacharis on his priority list? What we expect from April 14 and Dalit History Month is the PM saying with conviction that “[any] human being cannot, should not touch human excreta”—and not all the ministers and leaders coming together and garlanding Ambedkar.  

Ambedkar Jayanti should not be celebrated with false worshipping—these ministers are sitting and watching Dalit women clean excreta while touching the feet of an Ambedkar statue. The progressive citizens are not going to keep quiet forever while fellow human beings die inside septic tanks. We are working towards breaking the silence of the government, and I am not alone. It is the courage of the women who burnt the baskets and the courage of the SKA volunteers who are giving their life for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s vision that keeps me going.  

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