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'A lack of will to end manual scavenging'

Interview: Murali Krishnan, New DelhiJuly 29, 2016

The Indian government banned manual scavenging in 1993 but the practice is widespread in the country. Bezwada Wilson, this year's recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award, tells DW there is not enough pressure to end it.

Prakesh, a migrant worker takes bath near an open sewer at a slum in Mumbai, India (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Image: AP

Manual scavenging – removing human excrement from toilets with one's hands – is one of the worst jobs in the world. Although banned more than two decades ago, there are still thousands of people in India who still work as manual scavengers. They are mostly women from "lower caste" groups like the Dalits.

This week, Indian activist Bezwada Wilson was among the six recipients of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award. Wilson launched the "Safai Karmachari Andolan" (campaign against manual scavenging) in 1995. Since then, it has grown into a nation-wide movement covering 25 states.

In an interview with DW, Wilson explains why the practice still exists in the South Asian country, and what more needs to be done to put an end to it.

Indien Bezwada Wilson
Bezwada WilsonImage: Safai Karmachari Andolan/Murali Krishnan

DW: What does the Ramon Magsaysay award mean to you? Do you think it's a personal recognition or an acknowledgement of the effectiveness of your campaign?

Bezwada Wilson: The award is for the real heroes, the women and manual scavengers who have organized themselves and challenged the inhumane practice. These women have been exploited for a long time, and even their children end up in the same dirty profession.

Raising the awareness among them that they do not have to perform such tasks has been challenging considering India's deep-rooted caste system.

Do you think the award will give an impetus to your movement?

I think so. But it has to be a collective effort. A single movement cannot put an end to this practice.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Swachh Bharat Abhiyan" - Clean India Campaign - has done little to address the plight of manual scavengers. It only seeks to build more toilets in the country. At the end of the day, the government will only employ more Dalits as manual scavengers to clean the newly-built toilets.

The state governments are not taking steps to eradicate manual scavenging by replacing it with machines and modern technology.

How prevalent is manual scavenging in India?

India still has over 200,000 manual scavengers. Our campaign has helped around 300,000 people switch to other professions. But it still exists everywhere in India, in almost every state, particularly in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Haryana and the Punjab.

What measures need to be taken most urgently?

There is a problem with the way the central and state governments view this issue. The profession has been made to seem invisible so that the government can deny its existence. If you don't admit that a problem exists, you won't be solving it.

Our demand is that the government must get rid of "dry toilets" and move manual scavengers to decent professions immediately.

Do you think the Dalits, keeping in mind their social and economic position in Indian society, can afford to change professions?

It is not only about the Dalits. A majority of people in India feels that manual scavenging is acceptable because the "low-caste" people are engaged in it. Even the scavengers, after years of suppression, have accepted it as reality. But finally they are beginning to challenge the practice and are demanding their rights. India needs the political will to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, it lacks this at the moment.

Bezwada Wilson is the national convener of the "Safai Karmachari Andolan," an Indian human rights organization that is campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging.