How Bezwada Wilson Liberated Lakhs Of Manual Scavengers In India

First published in HuffPost India, 27 June 2016

Since the Indian Parliament outlawed manual scavenging in 1993, the very existence of a dry latrine became illegal. Bezwada Wilson’s Safai Karmachari Andolan would take a crowd of former manual scavengers, mostly women, to demolish dry latrines wherever they could find them. On one occasion, they even did it inside a court complex!

The resulting hullabaloo around the demolition would help Wilson spread awareness about the law against manual scavenging. This is just one of many ways in which Wilson has brought down the numbers of manual scavenging from lakhs to a few thousand.

The story begins in 1986. That was the year when Wilson finished school in Karnataka’s Kolar district. He decided to volunteer to teach children in his sweepers’ colony. He found that there was a high drop-out rate among the students.

Why did you dropout?

“Our parents are alcoholic, they don’t want to send us to school.”

He asked the parents: “Why do you drink day and night and not spend on your children’s education?” “We drink because our work is such.” “What is your work?” “Cleaning toilets.” “But why does it make you drink?” “Our working conditions are bad.”

What did they mean by bad working conditions? Why do they make them drink alcohol? Or was it all just an excuse?

Wilson wanted to see it from himself, but they won’t let him. He followed them on the sly and found them picking up human excreta from dry latrines and putting them in buckets. One karmachari’s bucket fell into a pit of human excreta and he put his hands in there to pick up the bucket. Wilson pushed him away. “What are you doing? Let me do my job,” the manual scavenger shouted back.

“That day I cried for the first time,” Wilson said. He went home and told his retired parents about it. He was in for more surprise. “This is what your parents did all their lives,” they told him.

That day, his life changed, and so it did for the lakhs of manual scavengers all over India.

The people in his colony were employed by Bharat Gold Mines Public Ltd. Kolar had India’s first labour union for the scavengers, but the Marxists just wanted to use them to have a bucket of human excreta strewn outside the houses of those who didn’t strike. The excreta had to be later cleared by the same scavengers.

The manual scavengers did not want to make it an issue. Bezwada got someone to write a letter to the Bharat Mines officials. The reply denied the existence of dry latrines. He sent them pictures, and dispatched copies of the pictures to the prime minister and all Dalit members of parliament. In 1993, thanks to international pressure, India had outlawed manual scavenging. The Centre got the Bharat Mines to demolish them. The manual scavengers were taken into other jobs.

Wilson then moved to Andhra, where he found that municipal corporations had employed 8,340 karmacharis in 16,380 community latrines in the state. The state government actually employed people to do something that had been declared illegal. This is a likely true even today of the Indian Railways and some municipal corporations in a few states.

Lobbying with Dalit MLAs in Andhra, Bezwada got the government to demolish most of them. Bezwada’s Safai Karamchari Andolan went on a 45-day-long yatra in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, demolishing dry latrines that the state government didn’t exist.

At the Nizamabad court complex, the court intervened when they were demolishing the toilet. Wilson got the court to order stopping the demolition in writing, and then wrote to the Supreme Court asking how a local court could violate the law. The Supreme Court had it demolished in 24 hours.

Self-taught in English, fighting caste with humour, Wilson was meant to become part of the Christian clergy, but destiny had something else for him. A follower of Ambedkar, Wilson rebuffed Christian clergy and politicians alike who tried to use him.

Once a top politician invited him and said, why don’t you organize a dry latrine demolition and I will join you. Wilson realized this was a way of winning Valmiki votes. “You have such a huge all-India network of party workers, why don’t you ask them to identify dry latrines in their area and demolish them. Then I will come to attend the demolitions,” Wilson replied. The politician was suitably chastised.

Wilson has spent the past many years getting the law implemented, getting central and state governments to rehabilitate manual scavengers – of course the rehabilitation packages are swindled away by politicians in most states. The hardest part has been to nail the lie — governments, municipal corporations and institutions like the railways deny the existence of manual scavenging.

So Wilson’s organization took to undertaking massive all-India surveys to identify manual scavengers, and then do everything they could to make them leave the work. Since manual scavenging paid them so little, Wilson’s organization motivated them to leave it and find alternative work. Anything could pay more. There were those who hid their caste, migrated and found work as house-helps. Others started small roadside shops or took to basket weaving.

In one event he organized, I heard woman after woman speak their stories, with tears of joy. Andolan people came and made us leave the work, they said. Wilson calls them liberated women. One woman whose face I can’t forget, spoke about how she did manual scavenging for 50 years – right from her childhood. In her old age, she had been liberated.

Wilson has now moved to making lives better for those who work to clean sewage lines and septic tanks, often leading to deaths. With determination, humour and all-round goodwill, there is little doubt he will succeed.

Bezwada Wilson has brought hope and joy to so many lives, the Magsaysay Award is the least he deserves. Most of all, he deserves our time and attention.

Understanding the BSP’s silence on atrocities against Dalits

By Shivam Vij

First published by Tehelka on 24 March 2007

Raju Pal, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) legislator from Dhumanganj Assembly seat in Allahabad, was murdered in January 2005. Mohammad Ashraf and his brother, Samajwadi Party (SP) MP Atiq Ahmed, were arrested and later released on bail. Since then, four more BSP functionaries in Allahabad have been gunned down. In what was widely seen as retaliation by the BSP, there was an unsuccessful attempt on SP leader Suresh Yadav’s life in September 2005.

The violence is seen as linked to BSP’s increasing influence in the Allahabad area and the SP’s attempts to retain its hold on the seats here. The BSP has tried its best to draw political mileage from the murders, staging dharnas and walkouts in the Vidhan Sabha in Lucknow. Continue reading “Understanding the BSP’s silence on atrocities against Dalits”

The Elephant Paradox

By Shivam Vij

First published in Tehelka dated 10 March 2007

Saath saal puranay Sanghi ko tod laaye hain hum!,” (We have won over a sixty-year-old Sanghi — a member of the Jan Sangh — to our side) exults Sarvesh Shukla as he walks into his rooftop campaign office. Shukla is contesting from the Generalganj Vidhan Sabha seat in Kanpur in the UP Assembly elections, which will be held in April and May, on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket. Festooned with plastic BSP flags, the office overlooks a busy marketplace — and exudes an air that matches the thirty-something candidate’s upbeat mood.

Shukla is a Brahmin. He was active in Kanpur University politics until recently and had little chance of getting a Vidhan Sabha ticket from any party. But the BSP is wooing Brahmins in a big way — “Sarvajan” (for everyone) is BSP’s new mantra. For now the “Bahujan” agenda — the project of uniting dalits, OBCs and Muslims in a coalition of the oppressed — has been shelved. Continue reading “The Elephant Paradox”

The Elephant Charge

By Shivam Vij

First published in Tehelka issue dated 26 May 2007

You may have seen him on television on May 11, blue gulal all over his bearded, happy face and brand new kurta, dancing more for the television cameras than to the beat of the dholaks. Sobran Pal knew this was the right time for some publicity. This was his moment as much as it was the Bahujan Samaj Party’s, and although Pal had not been given a ticket he is instrumental for the BSP’s strategy to win over the Pals, an intermediate obc caste, not just in Uttar Pradesh but all over India. Based in Jalaun near Jhansi, he is also the vice president of the Uttar Pradesh Pal-Baghel Samaj, one of hundreds of such caste-based organisations across India.

What attracted Pal to politics and the BSP is exactly what Kanshi Ram had once told Mayawati to convince her to join politics: instead of trying to become a civil servant, she could rule over hundreds of civil servants. There are a few good reasons why workers like Pal are so central to the BSP’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh’s 15th Vidhan Sabha elections. Like him, there are many workers who convince members of their caste to vote for the BSP. This stems from the BSP’s realisation that caste is the basic unit of Indian society. This idea is as central to the party’s Sarvajan Samaj strategy as it was to its Bahujan Samaj ideology. Continue reading “The Elephant Charge”

Behenji’s Brahmin Gamble

Published in Tehelka issue dated 28 April 2007

If the ongoing elections in Uttar Pradesh result in Mayawati becoming Chief Minister of the state, she will be governing more people than any other woman leader in the world at this moment.

But that record she has broken before. Three times, in fact. In those three terms put together, she ruled for a little less than two years. That is not surprising in a state where one Jagdambika Pal was chief minister for all of 48 hours. The BSP is hoping not just to form a coalition government but one that lasts five years.

The BSP was founded by Kanshi Ram, a former laboratory assistant in a defence laboratory, in 1984, preceded by thirteen years of social agitations by dalit beneficiaries of affirmative action. The vacuum left by the co-option of the Ambedkar-founded Republican Party of India into the Congress made Uttar Pradesh a fertile ground for the BSP. Continue reading “Behenji’s Brahmin Gamble”

Between the bathroom and the kitchen, there is caste

First published in Scroll.in on 1 December 2014.

A new survey shows that untouchability is still rampant in India. This is important because many like to pretend caste is a thing of the past.

The survey of over 42,000 households across India by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland shows that 27% of India still practices untouchability. More than one in every four people.

Even in rural India, there is awareness that caste discrimination is politically incorrect. So if you ask people if they practice it, they will probably claim that they don’t. Travelling as a journalist in north India, I have often heard people say, “Here there is no caste.” Ask them specific questions about inter-caste relations, and the lie is exposed. Continue reading “Between the bathroom and the kitchen, there is caste”

Why Dalit radicals don’t want Arundhati Roy to write about Ambedkar

For Scroll.in on 12 March 2014

As blogs and social media took India by the storm in the mid-2000s, their big target was Big Media. For the first time, journalists and editors got a taste of their own medicine. They began to hear criticism of their work on a minute-by-minute basis: some fair and some unfair, some in long prose and some in nasty one-liners. They did not take to it nicely. They complained about the language used by bloggers and social media enthusiasts, they went on and on about the abuse. One often heard the grouse, “On the internet, anyone can say anything!” Continue reading “Why Dalit radicals don’t want Arundhati Roy to write about Ambedkar”