Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson has been at the forefront of a spirited campaign for many years, working relentlessly for the total eradication of manual scavenging in the country. In conversation with Giridhar Jha after the recent landfill tragedy at Ghazipur in Delhi, the 51-year-old crusader talks about the civic scenario, death of sanitary workers, the prime minister’s pet Swachh Bharat campaign and the reasons why we, as a nation, have failed to deal with sanitation in a scientific manner.
Death of sanitary workers inside sewers has become a routine affair…
We have made a list of 754 people, including 84 in Delhi, who died while working in sewerage lines and septic tanks across the country. Ten persons died within 34 days in the national capital alone. Can you imagine what would have happened had 10 cows died in Delhi? Everybody would have risen to wear their nationalism on their sleeves. But when Dalit workers die in the national capital, nobody issues a statement. This criminal silence must be broken. After all, all lives matter, including the lives of Dalits. The prime minister must hold an emergency meeting with the chief ministers to take stock of the situation and declare when they are going to stop the killings of civic workers in septic and sewer lines. Mere statements, as in the case of the Ghazipur mishap, will not suffice.
Why do you think the situation has come to such a pass?
The problem with the Indian civil society is that we have started calling it a civil society without it being civilised. Instead of learning new things, we live in the past, always glorifying it by saying that nobody else in the world had drains like we had in Harappa or Mohenjodaro. Modern society requires so many things to develop and adapt, particularly when it comes to sanitation. But the problem is that civic bodies, like Indian society in general, are beset with a casteist mindset. Since civic service providers are all from an untouchable community, others have stopped bothering about sanitation. They think the job of cleanliness has been allotted to a particular community, which will manage it.
Why is it so different in the West?
The traditional notion in our society is that Lakshmi (wealth) keeps away from ‘impure’ places. That is why toilets are either built outside the house or we defecate in the open. In other parts of the world, people developed their own mechanism of how to deal with it in a sensitive and humane manner, without hurting or creating problems for others. They did not assign the scavenging job to a particular community. In India, on the other hand, each caste is supposed to do one work. So Dalits have to do the scavenging work and the rest of the society stops worrying about it. That is a major problem. Also, scavenging is linked with caste, but there is no mechanism or political will to break that link. Cleaning somebody’s excreta is a punishable crime in the country, but there is no political will to resolve this problem. It is not as though the people in power cannot understand it; they actually do not want to understand it. Nobody talks about it openly. So whenever any issue related to sanitation comes up, they immediate think of one particular community to take care of it.
What is preventing them from making use of the latest technologies to manage the sewage lines?
When we have the capacity to run Metro trains through a tunnel without shaking Connaught Place in Delhi, why can’t we opt for proper technology for maintaining the sewage lines? Why should we send human beings down into the sewage lines, which are 20 feet deep at many places? How can we even think of sending somebody inside? It is criminal. That workforce can be engaged in other activities. All we need is a mechanised system to be put in place for taking out the muck. For that, we don’t even need to invent new technology. It is already there; we only need to use it in keeping with the local requirements.