Bezwada Wilson, crusader against manual scavenging, says India needs both Gandhi and Ambedkar. Talking to Ananya Vajpeyi for The Hindu’s Sunday magazine dated 02 October 2022, Wilson said the link between the caste and manual scavenging has to be understood properly. Born in Kolar in Karnataka to manual scavenger parents 56 years ago, Wilson dedicated his life to the cause of eradicating the demeaning practice. He heads Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement of sanitation workers whose social background and economic backwardness push them into manual scavenging. The Ramon Magsaysay Award winner spoke on many subjects including Swatch Bharat Abhiyan. Ananya is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.
Asked whether he is a Gandhian or an Ambedkarite, Wilson said he is more of an Ambedkarite but added that Gandhi has undoubtedly had a huge influence on India and Indians and that we must acknowledge both. While Gandhi tried to bring about change through moral betterment, Ambedkar looked for systemic reform.
What approach was more effective? “I am an Ambedkarite, but I appreciate many things about Gandhi. I always wear Khadi. Gandhi was genuinely concerned for India’s peasants and workers, for women and children, for the poor and the downtrodden. He may not have had the answers but he did not hesitate to take on every single important problem of his time. He fought for independence from colonial rule and believed in non-violence. He lived his own message. We must admire and embrace Gandhi as much as Ambedkar.
Answering a question on Swatch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), Wilson said “it is utterly useless because it simply does not make the link between sanitation, caste and patriarchy. Building toilets without supplying sufficient water or proper drainage, converting manual scavenging into ‘sanitation work,’ failing to distinguish the tasks performed by women versus what men do- all of this makes Swatch Bharat Abhiyan totally hollow. Manual scavenging is illegal, but india has not developed a mechanized way of cleaning waste even today, after 75 years of independence.”
Sanitation work is paid. “So much so that many manual scavengers subcontract their work to others, and continue to accept payment from both government and private individuals, whilst getting others to perform this dirty task. But we want people, especially women, to leave this work and we want to help them find alternatives, to be rehabilitated into mainstream society.”
“In South India it is easier, because the main employers are State Governments and we can demand that they stop. In North, most employment is in private households…it is much more difficult to handle the problem,” Wilson commented. In Maharashtra and Bengal there is very little manual scavenging due to Dalit movement or Left politics, he said.
Asked if he is linked to Dalit politics and Ambedkar, he said “Yes. Ambedkar is very important to our movement. It took me many years to understand that scavenging is a function of caste, not a form of productive work that has a role to play in the larger economic structure of society. I only realized this when I began to read Ambedkar around time of his birth centenary (1991). Baba Saheb is the only one to advocate that Dalits, especially the women, must absolutely abandon manual scavenging, that there is no justification for it. He taught us to see it for what it is: humiliation and discrimination.
Is he connected with any Dalit organization? “No. we are not an organization, not an NGO, not a party and not with any party. We are a movement. For me, India has nothing to celebrate and be proud of until each and every human being is free. Democracy and manual scavenging cannot co-exist. As long as there is manual scavenging, there is no real freedom in India.
Wilson said we have to annihilate caste to be genuinely democratic. He says manual scavenging is a political question. The issue is not that we lack the technology for good sanitation or that we need a strong economy to leave this practice behind. It is a matter of political will. In independent India there is no party, no leadership that has demonstrated the political will to eliminate manual scavenging, which means annihilating caste and annihilating patriarchy.