Monday, 5 December 2016

Magsaysay winner Bezwada Wilson smashed manual scavenging

By Udumula Sudhakar Reddy

National Convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), Mr Bezwada Wilson, conferred the Ramon Magsaysay award on Wednesday for “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity,” worked extensively in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to eradicate manual scavenging. Thanks to SKA’s efforts many people were liberated from the banned task of cleaning dry latrines by carrying night soil away.

Speaking to this newspaper Mr Wilson credited the award to the “thousands of women who courageously threw their basket of caste slavery." “The credit and honour exclusively goes to these women and then to the team of the committee of Safai Karmachari Andolan. I am just an instrument,” he said. The Safai Karmchari Andolan was started in 1995 by the children of those engaged in manual scavenging and spread to over 25 states. Mr Wilson took up the Bhim Yatra in AP and Karnataka with the slogan ‘Leave the Broom, Take the Pen’ and youth of the community got inspired by this.

Regarding the situation of manual scavenging in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Mr Wilson said “We have demolished several dry latrines. The government also took a stand. However in Kadapa, Kurnool and Anantapur districts dry latrines still exist and the community is still working as manual scavengers. Dry latrines exist in Telangana, too, but less in number. In both the states the problem of manual cleaning of sewer lines and septic tanks is severe and need to be addressed to. Last year we launched a movement with karyakarthas in AP and Telangana. In six months we are expecting some results. There were several deaths during the manual cleaning of sceptic tanks, reported in AP and Telangana, where we have fought for compensation.”

Mr Wilson hails from the same community and witnessed his parents and grandparents having to do manual scavenging. The Ramon Magsaysay citation for Mr Wilson reads: “Fifty years old, Bezwada Wilson has spent 32 years on his crusade, leading not only with a sense of moral outrage but also with remarkable skills in mass organising, and working within India’s complex legal system. SKA has grown into a network of 7,000 members in 500 districts across the country. Of the estimated 600,000 scavengers in India, SKA has liberated around 300,000. While Bezwada has placed at the core of his work the dalits’ self-emancipation, he stresses that manual scavenging is not a sectarian problem.”

Mr Wilson was born in Kolar, Karnataka. His grandparents lived in Hyderabad. His surname comes from Vijayawada, which is known as Bezawada. He did his schooling in Kuppam of Chittoor district. Mr Wilson said his forefathers lived in Nellore and Prakasam districts and migrated to Karnataka. “I was born in Kolar and did my primary schooling there. From Class 5 to 10, I studied in Kuppam and shifted to Hyderabad,” he said. In Hyderabad, he completed his graduation in political science, public administration and sociology through correspondence from the Dr B R Ambedkar Open University.

Mr Wilson worked with retired IAS official, the late S.R. Sankaran, till 2010.  Sankaran was known for his work for the uplift of the downtrodden. “I first met S.R. Sankaran in 1992 after his retirement. I requested him to be president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan. He said he would be with us. Till his last breath he was part of the andolan,” he said. National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights General Secretary, Paul Diwakar, who is part of the team at Safia Karmachari Andolan and worked with Mr Wilson said, “This is really a great recognition for the work done by Wilson. After so many years the issue has been recognised by the broader society. Right from his school days he was involved in this movement. In 1988 we had initiated this movement and he led it wonderfully.”

Mr Diwakar said “The highlight of the movement is that he bought all community leaders on one platform where they turned into defenders of the human rights of their people, challenging the system. Their parents migrated to Kolar to find employment but they are forced to do the same task in Karnataka too.” Mr Wilson was one of two Indians, the other being Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna, 40, of Tamil Nadu, chosen for the award for “showing that music can indeed be a deeply transformative force in personal lives and society itself.”

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