“They do not decide their lives. For them, it is already decided. They just have to take birth.”
Sounds like a celestial announcement announcing the birth of a warrior Kshatriya clan, doesn’t it? But I must warn you, this is just the opposite of what you fathomed. I am talking about the manual scavengers of India, those who clean and dispose of human excreta, the most degrading and inhumane of occupations, whose lives are decided by the chance of their birth. Often seen on roads carrying buckets on their heads, these people remain absent from our conscience.
Life was also decided for Bezwada Wilson, born to parents who worked as manual scavengers all their lives like all others in their caste. But Wilson fought against it and today he fights for the dignity and respect of thousands of manual scavengers in India, dignity, and respect which has eluded all their generations for ages.
Bezwada Wilson first came across manual scavengers and their degrading occupation in the Kolar Gold Fields in Tamil Nadu, which was filled with dry latrines for the mine workers which his parents and caste brethren used to clean every day. Filled with remorse and disgust watching them, it was that fateful day he decided to sacrifice his life to the cause of ameliorating these people of their humiliating occupation.
Starting at home, Wilson petitioned the mine management at Kolar to stop using dry latrines and providing jobs to those working as manual scavengers, which went grossly unnoticed. Undeterred, he sent proofs and evidence of the use of dry latrines, first to the mine management and then to newspapers, which was an embarrassment for the state government of the time.
In 1993, Government of India outlawed the practice of manual scavenging and use of dry latrines by The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. This act though noble in aim was grossly violated even by government bodies, which saved money by paying these workers less. Poverty begets poverty, and with no education and health protection, these people were doomed forever.
Bezwada Wilson launched the Safai Karmachari Andolan a national movement for the elimination of manual scavenging. Their PIL in Supreme Court in 2003 was the first instance in history when 22 people were jailed for employing manual scavengers. Over the years, the movement has moved from court petitioning to working in the community helping these people find alternate jobs and education and health benefits for their children.
— Development Dialogue (@SandboxDD) January 28, 2017
Today, a recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, Wilson has a life of 32 years of social activism behind him. He has vowed to make India free of manual scavenging. A battle yet to be won by him, but he is relentless.