Bezawada Wilson, co-founder of Safai Karamchari Andolan and magsaysay award winner delivered a lecture on occasion of National Service Scheme(NSS) Foundation Day on 26th September at IIT Madras. Safai Karamchari Andolan continues to work tirelessly to organise workers and abolish manual scavenging, under which the untouchable dalit castes are made to clean human excreta of others. In his address, he highlighted the reproduction of caste through mindset, social structures and state and asked the young students, who attended the lecture, to question and work together to destroy such oppressive structures.
Bezawada Wilson used the example of Indian Railways, Swachha Bharat and lack of rehabilitation measures to discuss State’s apathy to take steps to abolish manual scavenging. He said that there are 1,78,000 coaches in India, carrying people all over the country. Most of the trains are scheduled to arrive at big cities such as Chennai in early mornings and this means that the human excreta, from the toilets used by passengers, will be left in the train tracks at these stations. These are cleaned by manual scavengers, one of whom was Bezawada’s own brother who worked in Indian Railways as manual scavenger for 18 years. In 2003, Safai Karamchari Andolan petitioned in Supreme Court to modernise Railways. Railways came up with a solution to cement the railway tracks so that it can be flushed away with water. However, this has not been done in major cities. When Safai Karamchari Andolan pointed the ineffectiveness of the solution, the Government came back with Control Toilet Discharge System ( CTDS ), where human excreta will be collected under the coach and will be discharged outside the railway station. The Government spent 80-90 crore rupees on this solution but it was not effective because when the driver discharged the excreta outside the station when the train is in transit and it ended up hitting those passengers sitting near the windows.
A High Court Committee on Railway Safety has said that this is weakening the rails and hence the scheme has been withdrawn. Now, DRDO (Defense Research and Development Organization), has developed a bacteria which can eat human excreta and has been tested in Siachen Glacier with military in Jammu and Kashmir. However, they have announced that they will change to 500 coaches out 1.78 lakh coaches to bio-toilets and at this rate, no one knows how many years will it take for this proposal to be effective. An additional concern with this proposal is lack of answer to Hazards Center’s question on where these bacteria will be disposed off.
When Safai Karamchari Andolan raises these issues in Parliamentary Standing Committees and Ministers’ Conferences, Bezawada Wilson said that politicians ask them to come up with a solution. He ridiculed this attitude of Indian Community which expects the oppressed members of SKA, who clean the shit, to come up with a solution, when there are Indian scientists who can solve cryogenic rocket engines for the country. He said ‘The country which is technologically sound gives a report that their machines are not capable of cleaning excreta properly and that is why humans are needed. Is this reasonable justification?….the scientists, they don’t want to think about this, because their mind will get polluted if they think about shit. That is the reason. They have to open their minds’.
While the State has facilitated rapid urbanisation, there has been no infrastructure development in sewerage and waste management. There has been no efforts to mechanise cleaning of sewer lines and septic tanks, with the result that there are deaths of humans in sewerage. Tamil Nadu has the highest reported incidents in sewer deaths. After Supreme Court Judgement in 2014, there have been 1372 deaths reported and yet no action has been taken. He said that NCRB(National Crimes Report Bureau) does not track deaths due to manual scavenging. The officials dont talk about it and hence Safai Karamchari Andolan has taken a Bhim Yatra across the whole country and they have talked about death in sewer lines, their right to life.
By 2019, the State is talking of constructing 12 crores toilets as part of Swacha Bharat. This is when there is no mechanism to change the sewer lines and septic tanks, where human beings are dying and there is no intention of modernising these. Bezawada asked how many thousands would die if 12 crore toilets are added and would have to be cleaned. He said that there is corporatisation of waste management in which toilet construction is a big business. and cited Delhi where they are constructing 1300 public pay and use toilets in the slums. He asked if a family of 5 can spend Rs 10 a day just to relieve themselves and asked ‘We have completely failed to give food for the hunger in the country. Now we are not allowing the poor to even relieve themselves. This is the fate of the country. This is where our planners are leading? Why is our plan always going in this direction where we have to pay to even use the toilets. Where the poor dont have the money to eat, why are they constructing so many toilets?’.
Bezawada Wilson highlighted the issues of lack of rehabilitation to underscore the apathy of Government. He said that when Safai Karamchari Andolan applied for rehabilitation for its members, the District Administration says that there is budget allocated for rehabilitation. At the same time, when Prime Minister Modi announced Swachha Bharat in 2014 and allocated budget for Rs 2 lakh crores, the Government immediately announced a cess to fund this project. When there is money to build toilets, why is there no money to rehabilitate people who clean shit, he asked. He questioned that ‘Where did we lose our sensitivity? Can we call ourselves human beings when 1.6 lakh women of this country carry shit of another for Rs 30?”. He also said that he did not believe in justice enforced by law as he has seen 3 chief justices and 26 Supreme Court Judges during his journey with Safai Karamchari Andolan between 2003 and 2014. He said that the Judges do not understand the languages of people and he cannot understand the language of Judges.
Highlighting the capitalist structure for whom the Government works, Bezawada said that the government banks has given 1.14 lakh crore rupees as loans to the private sector. When members of Safai Karamchari Andolan has taken loans from Government banks to buy auto rickshaws as alternate employment, and they were unable to pay the loans after 4th month, they sent not their representative but goondas, who confiscated the auto rickshaws.
Social Structures and Mindsets
Bezawada Wilson explained how caste continues to persist when he highlighted his own childhood experiences and links it to a recent episode in Delhi. He recounted the belittling of his environment by other children which he was able to counter with various arguments. He recalled , “They will say that your school is very small and is constructed with thin sheets, and I used to say my school may be small but the tree in front of my school is very big. I want to counter that my school may be small because the convent school they were studying is very big and I would study in corporation school where all scavenger family students go. Then they will say your school does not have a bell. Really we did not have a bell. You can just take a stone and bang against the thin sheets and I would say we don’t need one small bell we can make a whole bell. They will say you dont have benches and chairs. I would say the rooms are so free, I can sit anywhere and sleep anywhere’.
However, when the children make fun of his caste as Thotti, he said that he would not have an answer. His mother, while trying to shield him from these cruelties of caste on children, would point to a dustbin(known as thotti) near their home and would tell him that people are making fun of him because of the dustbin near their house. He recounted that his mother worked to ensure that the traditional occupation of manual scavenging done by Thotti community would not be for her child.
He narrated an incident recently he was part of a discussion in race course , Delhi where someone referred to him as Bangi(Term used to denote manual scavenger, one who cleans human excreta from dry latrines) and Thotti(Caste). He asked why in a country which claims that there is no caste anywhere in these days of economic development symbolised by flyover, malls, a person is referred by not only caste but by the occupation associated with the caste, even when that person is not pursuing that occupation. He said that while caste is everywhere in all campuses including IIT Madras, it is not discussed because it is in our mindset. He said that this is internalized among his own community when he discusses an experience with his own family who says in an incident, ‘ that person is talking cleverly. he must be a brahmin’.
He said that even today, the village structure is defined along the caste structure. In no village, has the order of this structure been destroyed, where there are agrahara where brahmins live and at the end there are shudras. He said ‘From the river, the brahmin takes the water first and it is passed until the shudras and the river flows to the next village and the order is repeated. How rational is this order? We still believe and accept this inherently’. He discusses the politics of cow protection where he said that everyone worships the cow ‘as mother’ as long it is alive and gives milk. As soon as the cow is dead, then it is left at the feet of untouchables to bury ‘the mother’. He said that in one sense, it is the untouchables who are free because they are not in the social order created by hindu hierarchy. He said, ‘Its good that we are not in this order because those in the order are getting some benefits from the system, some more so than other and so are willing to keep quiet’.
He linked the social structures that produce caste also also produces patriarchy. He narrated how in Banaras Hindu University, they stopped giving meat because women would have sexual urges. In Gurgaon, he said that after a woman was raped, the Police Commissioner gave a circular saying that women should not come out after 9 o clock in the night. He asked, ‘A woman got raped by a man and PC says that woman should not come out. if the men are raping women, why cant the Police Commissioner issue a circular saying that men cannot come out after 6 o’ clock? The state is always with those powerful and never with the weak and the marginalised’. He questioned the logic of 33% quota for women when women should be given equal representation in proportion to their population in society. Similarly, he discussed the assault on reservation where he said, ‘ Only 18% of Total available jobs are with public sectors. In the rest of 80%, there is no reservation and it is everybody who is getting it. The private sector while getting lakhs and lakhs of rupees from the government, they dont want to follow any orders from the government’.
Bezawada said that caste and religion are marked in three ways in our lives; in birth, marriage and in death. He said that one cannot choose caste as it is marked by one’s birth and the only places where they can be changed is in marriage and death. However, he said even among those who claim to be liberal, the decision to marry and the ceremonies after death are marked by caste.
Questioning the mindset, structures and state
Bezawada said that there is a mindset not to talk openly about caste and patriarchy in this country and that there is no curriculum which covers this. In this context, he highlighted the bravery and courage of women who have come forward to say that they will not clean the shit of others and will not bury the cows in Gujarat. He said, ‘I am not eligible to receive any award in the country. The award must go to the women who courageously threw their basket in front of the collectors office and said that I don`t want to clean shit. I will not accept this.’. He said it is necessary for youth in the country to question and discuss practices such as caste and patriarchy which degrade humans to subhumans. He implored the students of IIT, ‘ You have a capacity to bring change. You question and you destroy, you tear down the walls of the caste. Event its smallest pieces, we should not see in the form of patriarchy in this country. If you don’t do that, it will take our soul and we will be just dead human beings alive. That I don’t want to see at all. My country and my people are great. You have a capacity to change the course of this country’.