Swachch Bharat Abhiyan Perpetuating Manual Scavenging: Bezwada Wilson

The 1.1 crore toilets built under the Modi government’s flagship scheme are not linked to any underground drainage system because in India’s urban and semi-urban areas, there is none. By 2019, the government has an ambitious target: construct 1,200 crore toilets nationwide.  In effect this will perpetuate manual scavenging, a humiliating practice which is illegal

Bezwada Wilson

Campaigner and Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson says that the septic tanks that will house the excreta will need to be cleaned by none other than India’s manual scavengers – a beleaguered lot.

In effect, says Bezwada, the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan is welcoming the use of septic tanks, banned under the 2013 law, apart from perpetuating a practice that should be abhorrent to any civilised society.

Bezwada Wilson had been invited to several official meetings after he won the prestigious Magsaysay award this year where he has flagged this issue. So far this rational intervention has fallen on deaf years. Wilson, a passionate campaigner for the rights of manual scavengers, was himself born in Karnataka into one such family.

“I have attended all government conferences and being told that 2 crore toilets under the prime minister’s flagship Swachch Bharat scheme where all the toilets being built are dry latrines. So I ask, are we multiplying deaths through this scheme?”

[[Bezwada Wilson’s pointed criticism of the central government scheme comes at a time when it has announced that Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, first states to be ‘free of open defecation’ in urban areas]]

“No human being should clean anyone’s shit.”
“For over 4,000 years we have cleaned this country; there must be a modern way of laying sewer lines where humans must not enter.”
“Suppose one day we resist and refuse to perform this task. What will happen?”

Caste Descriptions of a Magsaysay Award Winner
 “Last year, at the Delhi Press Club we were speaking about our Campaign, the Bhim Yatra and I overheard this. One person asking, “Who is Bezwada Wislon?” and someone replying, “Bezwada.bhangi (caste abuse) hai!”

Caste and Patriarcy: two evil sides of the same coin
 “Do you know that the scavengers servicing the Indian Railways are paid more because they are men. And in rural India, where the woman cleans the toilets and carries the shit on her head of eight to ten households,the payment is much less, because the manual scavengers are all (98 per cent) women?”

Why is this Regime telling me what to eat, what to speak and how to live?
“Why are we privileging vegetarians in this country? All reports show that 50 per cent of Indians are way below the acceptable parameters of the human development index. And yet we have a regime that is telling us what to eat, what to read, what to speak. We are beef eaters from childhood and we will continue to eat beef. That is our right.”

“What happened in Una? You say cow is your mother and then when she dies, you throw her in my face to clean up the dead remains and carcasses. Five thousand years back, you created an irrational theory of caste and even today in the 21st century a majority of Indians live by it, believe in it.”

“Caste Hindus believe in it and Dalits have also been made to believe in it . This notion of superiority and inferiority is shameful. I say treat humans on par with animals.”

No justice for the manual scavenger
“Think about what justice means to the manual scavenger. Our experience of the judiciary has been sorry and pathetic: the way the higher judiciary treated our petition to get the illegal act of manual scavenging actually stopped. We were made to run around collecting data from states (we had to approach 22 high courts) because the state governments was not collecting data and we, not the state had to perform this task. We were made to make our sisters – the same women who do this un-dignified word, pose again and again for photographic evidence to persuade the highest/higher courts that the practice still exists!! The judiciary has been insensitive to this gross and inhuman practice.”

“My actual problem is that having lived with this, I cannot see any human being made to clean human excreta.”

No Data on Manual Scavenging
“Do you know that no state government in the country has undertaken the task of even collecting data on the existing practice of manual scavenging? They simply want to pretend that it does not exist. There have been no prosecutions, no awards of compensation. (Rs 10 lakhs is supposed to be awarded from each manual scavenger as rehabilitation under the new 2013 law)”

“The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) collects records of all accidental deaths, state-wise, region-wise. But there are no national records collected of deaths in sewage holes and septic tanks. Why? Are we not human? We have figures for how many toilets India has, how many televisions and scooters Indians consume but we have no ‘reliable data’ on how many manual scavengers there are! We calculated 1370 deaths in two years alone, was there a national uproar?”

“It is inhuman and shameful. Are we supposed to be counting deaths of our people, in sewage holes, septic tanks and the like while the state does nothing to prevent them despite the 2013 law?”

Caste: a Reality, Caste Inhuman
“The difference between other differentiations and that of caste, is that once you are born into a caste, there is simply no way to come out. It requires courage and the ability to speak out which is what I did. There is no such thing as ‘safe’ manual scavenging.”

“Umpteen Committees have sat for decades, ever since this country was born, the Barve Committee the Malkani Committee all recommend ‘safety measures’ for manual scavenging. This background note explains this background Some have suggested masks pointing out that it’s a health issue, others suggested measures to save and preserve the spines of the scavengers! None of these committee have said that ‘No human being should clean anyone’s shit’.”

“Do you rest of you Indians understand what I am saying? Those of you who say you are in the majority and there is no caste, here is what I say: Maybe the majority has the privilege to forget caste, but when will I, Bezwada Wilson, born into scavenging be allowed to forget my caste? I cannot forget it”

“I was born off the 6000 Kolar Coal fields in Karnataka and even if I want to, Indian society does not allow me to forget my caste. Then my question to all of you is, why can’t we stand to discuss this openly?”

“Caste and patriarchy are too embedded realities of India that we in India do not want to speak about. We want to formulate plans and schemes, but in our school textbooks, do we allow this reality to enter: why are all scavengers untouchables? How have all scavengers all become of one caste? Is this not by design?”

Prevention of Deaths, not Counting of the Dead Must be a priority
“The Prevention of Deaths not the Counting of the Dead must be a priority. I must narrate this story of a five year old girl who was listening to be campaigning within a colony on the subject. She came running out of her home to listen to me.
“I asked her, ‘What do you want to become?
‘A Doctor,’ was her reply.
‘To give for free service?’ I gently probed.
‘No,’ she replied
‘To become rich?’
‘Then, why?

Closing her eyes, as if to shield the pain, she said, ‘My father was a manual scavenger. When my father fell into pit, he was lying on a stretcher in a hospital where my mother and I had rushed him. He could not speak. He was trying to say something to me, to us. But no doctor touched my father and he died.’
“What kind of doctors have we produced? Do we actually want a five year old to become a doctor to save the lives of manual scavengers or do we want to stop this activity completely?”
These searing questions desrve not the deafening silence they have received so far, but answers. Fast.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was passed on September 18, 2013

In the very start, the aims and objects of the law are outlined thus:
“An Act to provide for the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers, rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
WHEREAS promoting among the citizens fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual
is enshrined as one of the goals in the Preamble to the Constitution;
AND WHEREAS the right to live with dignity is also implicit in the Fundamental Rights
guaranteed in Part III of the Constitution;
AND WHEREAS article 46 of the Constitution, inter alia, provides that the State shall
protect the weaker sections, and, particularly, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled
Tribes from social injustice and all forms of exploitation;
AND WHEREAS the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging, arising from the
continuing existence of insanitary latrines and a highly iniquitous caste system, still persists
in various parts of the country, and the existing laws have not proved adequate in eliminating
the twin evils of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging;
AND WHEREAS it is necessary to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered
by the manual scavengers, and to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity.
And yet the flagship scheme of the current government will, in effect perpetuate an inhuman and illegal practice.

(Bezwada Wilson was speaking in Hyderabad; his book was released in Telugu recently)


1) Bezwada Wilson Wins Ramon Magsaysay Award 2016
2) 'Our fight is for the restoration of the Constitutional vision': Bezwada Wilson
3) Modi's Swachch Bharat will fail and Dalit Revolt will Spread: Bezwada Wilson
4) Swacch Bharat Abhiyan Invisibilises Caste and Glamourises the Broom: Bezwada Wilson
5) Swachh Bharat Urban-Toilet Plan 76% Behind Schedule
6) Bhim Yatra: ‘Stop Killing Us in Dry Latrines, Sewers and Septic Tanks’
7) Dignity for Those Who Clean Our Filth
8) Bhim Yatra- Golaghat(Assam) and Dimapur(Nagaland)
9) Stop Killing Us: the Bhim Yatra of India’s Manual Scavengers tells the Indian government



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