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The fight for India’s ‘sweeper caste’ wins award


by Safai Karmachari Andolan

The country’s ‘national shame’ has long plagued the majority of its people, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

I'm proud and pleased to hear the news that my friend Bejawada Wilson has received the Ramon Magsaysay award for his years of work on the issue of India's sanitation workers. If there's one individual who truly deserved this it’s Wilson.

Bejawada Wilson Photo by Safai Karmachari Andolan

For those of you who have not read my columns about the problem of our 'manual scavengers' – I hate the terminology, you can read New Internationalist magazine, issue 380 from July 2005. Or my book Endless Filth.

For over a century balmikis – or people of the sweeper community at the bottom of both the caste heap, and the dalit heap even – have physically, with their bare hands, cleaned toilets. But these are not modern western type toilets. They are not even ordinary Indian style squat toilets. The women often have to sweep liquid shit, a veritable river of it, from a long drain where women squat to relieve themselves in community toilets, and physically carry it in metal basins to a dump outside.

Every single day, a man from this caste, known as the sweeper caste, dies. He drowns in sewage or liquid shit because he is called upon to unblock a manhole or a sewage pipe in some parts of our country. The fact that men die every single day seems to mean nothing to the majority of the people in our country. These days, animal lovers manage to get more coverage for dogs and cats than dalits get for their people – their raped, tortured, beaten, murdered men and women. That’s 21st century India for you.

Bejawada Wilson comes from the balmiki community. But his family educated him and kept him protected from the knowledge that some of them continued to do this terrible job of cleaning toilets, unblocking drains and sewage pits by immersing themselves in manholes filled with human excrement. When Wilson discovered that his own brother did this work, he was stunned. It started him on a campaign to eliminate the practice of 'manual scavenging'. First locally and then nationwide.

For this man, coming from a small town, Kolar, near Bangalore to have taken on the enormous task is phenomenal. Wilson created a movement the Safai Karmachari Andolan. He went from village to village, first in south India, then to the north, crisscrossing thousands of miles mostly by road, to implore his people to throw away those brooms, to stop the filthy cleaning practice of manual scavenging, which had been banned by law since 1993. In India we have wonderful legislation but most of our laws remain static on paper. In practice, life goes on, with banned or illegal tasks continuing as before.

Wilson's movement has worked tirelessly to end the execrable 'manual scavenging' practice. They moved from village to village. They've had huge successes. In Punjab and Chandigarh, India's richest states, people continued to build 'dry latrines', flushless toilets where a woman climbed to the top of the building to physically remove excrement into a basket or pail and then take it downstairs, to throw it somewhere far away. Wilson’s team got local TV channels to come and film the middle class homes. For a few dollars more, they could add a flush toilet. But the owners retained their feudal mindsets. Word spread that TV channels were exposing the banned toilets causing many to hurriedly install new flush latrines. The name and shame strategy worked.

Several politicians, most notably former Prime Minister Narsimha Rao in the 90's were obsessed with the idea of freeing India from our 'national shame'. But though millions have been sanctioned to build flush toilets, eradicate manual toilet cleaning and rehabilitate sanitation workers in new occupations, most of the money has gone into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats and officials.

Wilson continues with his team to battle for his peoples' dignity. In the courts and in the towns and villages of India. Perhaps the Magsaysay award will renew the political will to eradicate our national shame. Wilson’s picture and story has appeared on every Indian newspaper. He is a humble, quiet person. But perhaps being in the national spotlight will help further his cause. And eliminate the Indian curse of manual scavenging.

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