NEW DELHI: Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993 but continues unhindered.BEZWADA WILSON, the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2016, pioneered a fight against manual scavenging --a practice that forces people to pick human excreta with their bare hands even as governments deny their existence. Wilson is a strong and powerful voice for the cause but admits in this interview with Shreyansi Singh that the battle has barely begun.

Wilson’s family members had been manual scavengers for generations. His organisation, Safai Karamchari Andolan has managed to liberate 300,000 of the estimated 600,000 Safai Karamcharis in India.

“At a review meeting held by the the National Commission for Scheduled Castes states were required to submit a report. There was a surprising mismatch between the number of dry latrines and the number of manual scavengers. Telangana, for instance, reported 1,57,321 dry latrines as of December 31, 2015, but zero manual scavengers.” (The Hindu)

Excerpts from the interview :

Q. Is manual scavenging caste based?

Almost 100% of manual scavengers are ‘untouchables’. Government data and other data proves this and that isn’t a small number. It can’t be a coincidence.

Q.Do you think the Swachh Bharat Andolan has been effective in reducing manual scavenging?

Swachh Bharat is just a dummy programme that intended to address manual scavenging in the beginning but unfortunately it does not .

There is nothing for liberation of Safai karamcharis in the Swachh Bharat Andolan and the government isn’t interested in constructing new toilets and demolishing old toilets under Swachh Bharat,even when they have a list of dry latrines.

Eradication of manual scavenging and Swachh Bharat are two completely different things and so is the approach for both the things.

There’s just one politician who’s taking advantage of it by posing with a broom in his hand. You aren’t even addressing the issue but you are projecting that you are getting the result. A bureaucrat enters a pit to show solidarity. Ask these people to enter the sewage line or a septic tank. They’ll understand the problem we are talking about.

Think about the people who died. The nation has lost the ability to prioritise problems such as these. The budget allocated to eradication of manual scavenging is just Rs 5 crores while we are ready to invest Rs 30,000 crore for smart cities.

The Prime Minister can’t just be silent on this issue. This absence of dialogue is helping the problem to continue.

Q.Does the government provide adequate compensation to manual scavengers who lose their lives due to their working conditions?

The Supreme Court gave a judgement on March 27, 2014 which said that the governments must give compensation to those who die while working in sewers. State must try to prevent further deaths.

Not even a single step has been taken by any government. Contrary to that they haven’t even verified the data we gave them or made it available to the public.

Q.Do official reports by the state and central governments fail to portray the ground realities?

They don’t accept any data and deny the existence of manual scavengers in their state. They don’t even do justice to the small number of manual scavengers they come up with. Intervention must start at the Prime Minister and the President’s level, only then will it be followed by the state governments.

Q.Do you think the manual scavengers are caught in a vicious cycle because of birth, where they are made to follow the occupation of their parents?

Caste makes them do what they are doing because that becomes a tradition. Unfortunately, we haven’t developed a system that can break the barrier of caste based occupation. Dalits are conditioned to become manual scavengers by the undue pressure of the society. The society trains them to be confined to that level. There have been generations of manual scavengers and sweepers who must be given priority. The society’s game plan is a conspiracy.

Q. What can the government do?

Society can’t reform on it’s own and government initiative is required. Government must own up to the historical mistake and come out of denial.

The state must conduct a proper survey of identification of Safai Karamcharis, who should all be rehabilitated. Manual Scavenging has to be taken up as a national issue.

Q. Do you think the legislations are fullproof?

The legislations will always have loopholes because they are drafted by the government. They will keep them to find an escape. But even so the legislations are more than enough to eradicate manual scavenging if they want to do that.

Q.Is Safai Karamchari Andolan willing to take in volunteers?

Yes,we welcome volunteers to eradicate this cruel practice that goes against humanity.