India is a diverse country where different people eat all kinds of food, practice a range of traditions, and do varied things for a living. One of these many occupations is that of manual scavenging which is considered a duty by the people who do it and causes discrimination and ill-treatment from the society – mostly upper caste.
Fighting against this dehumanizing practice is Bezwada Wilson who was born to manual scavengers but did not know about his parents’ occupation for many years. In the year 2016, he was honored with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for his fight against this profession and the piling stigma and challenges around it.
“I wanted to die”
Wilson was born in 1966 into a Christian Dalit community in Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka. His father worked as a manual scavenger in the township removing people’s excreta from dry toilets. These old-style toilets are nothing but small dug-up holes where there is no water or flush system in place. These require cleaning in regular intervals so, people from the scavenging community pick up the human waste using a broom made of straws and carry it in an aluminium basket.
His father says he tried to find some other work but nobody would employ him considering him a lowly, untouchable man. One day, Wilson came across people who were cleaning dry latrines and was disgusted. When he shared his concerns with his parents, they told him that they too do the same work.
Wilson wanted to jump off a water tower as earlier his parents told him they worked at the mines. He tried to convince his parents to give up manual scavenging, there reaction was, “Focus on your studies instead of something that is a norm, it has always existed.
Not just his father, Wilson’s eldest brother also worked as a manual scavenger in the Indian railways for four years and then ten years in KGF gold mines township. Wilson studied living in a hostel for scheduled caste students where the other children would constantly trouble him and call him names like ‘thoti’ which means scavenger.
He was 18 when he came to know about his parents’ occupation and he was so ashamed and shaken that wanted to kill himself. After hours of weeping, and wrestling with his thoughts he decided to fight this social evil.
India declared manual scavenging illegal in 1993 but the practice continues in poorer states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. Till STD 4, Wilson studied in a school only for manual scavengers. All the kids in that school were children of manual scavengers.
After completing his studies, he began looking for a job to support himself financially. The first time he went to seek a job, he was offered a sweeper’s job just because of his surname and community. This angered him as he saw his dreams and his mother’s expectations shatter. Wilson refused to take this job and returned home and decided to start his crusade and reach every manual scavenger trying to persuade them to quit this job.
As a start, he wrote to ministers, chief minister, and prime minister attaching photographs and survey details. This cause a huge uproar in the parliament and the dry latrines were demolished, scavengers were rehabilitated and offered other dignified forms of manual labor.
After his first success, he turned to other states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu etc. One of his biggest fight is against Indian Railways that employs sweepers in large numbers to scoop out human excreta from railway tracks. Wilson is vocal about his fight and has brought about major changes, attracted international media, and incited anger against such dehumanizing practice causing change.