- BEZWADA WILSON was born to a dalit family in Kolar Gold Fields township in Karnataka state. Although his family had been engaged in manual scavenging for generations, he was spared the labor to be the first in his family to pursue a higher education.
- He started by changing the mindsets of his family and relatives – that being a dalit is not their fate but a status imposed by how society has been organized, and that no human being should be made to do such demeaning work as scavenging.
- 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 organizing, and working within India’s complex legal system.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India, reclaiming for the dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright.”
Manual scavenging is blight on humanity in India. Consigned by structural inequality to the dalits, India’s “untouchables,” manual scavenging is the work of removing by hand human excrement from dry latrines and carrying on the head the baskets of excrement to designated disposal sites. A hereditary occupation, manual scavenging involves 180,000 dalit households cleaning the 790,000 public and private dry latrines across India; 98 percent of scavengers are meagerly paid women and girls. While the Constitution and other laws prohibit dry latrines and the employment of manual scavengers, these have not been strictly enforced since government itself is the biggest violator.
BEZWADA WILSON was born to a dalit family in Kolar Gold Fields township in Karnataka state. Although his family had been engaged in manual scavenging for generations, he was spared the labor to be the first in his family to pursue a higher education. Treated as an outcast in school and acutely aware of his family’s lot, BEZWADA was filled with great anger; but he would later channel this anger to a crusade to eradicate manual scavenging.
He started by changing the mindsets of his family and relatives – that being a dalit is not their fate but a status imposed by how society has been organized, and that no human being should be made to do such demeaning work as scavenging. In 1986, he sent a complaint about dry latrines to the authorities of their town, and when he was ignored sent the complaint to the Prime Minister, threatening legal action. As a result, the town’s dry latrines were converted into water-seal latrines and the scavengers transferred to non-scavenging jobs.
He boldly moved his crusade to other states, working with dalit activists, recruiting volunteers for what would take shape as a people’s movement of manual scavengers and their children, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). With Bezwada Wilson as national convenor, SKA was launched in 1993 when he initiated the filing of a public interest litigation (PIL) case in India’s Supreme Court, naming all states, union territories, and the government departments of Railways, Defense, Judiciary, and Education as violators of the 1993 Prohibition Act banning dry latrines and the employment of manual scavengers.
SKA vigorously conducted district-level meetings to raise awareness about scavenging, the caste system, and the 1993 Prohibition Act, and trained local leaders and volunteers for the movement. In 2004-2005, it undertook a mass latrine demolition drive across the state of Andhra Pradesh; exposed the occupational violence faced by female scavengers; and met with officials to demand the demolition of dry latrines and the provision of alternative occupations for scavengers. In 2010, SKA led an India-wide march for the total eradication of scavenging, and again in 2015 undertook a 125-day bus journey across 30 states to mobilize the public against manual scavenging. The movement has since made significant progress. In 2013 SKA successfully lobbied for a new law that includes rehabilitation support for scavengers. It lobbied with local authorities for scholarships for children of manual scavengers, and conducted vocational training for scavengers’ daughters to move them into more decent jobs. It is now involved in crafting a new law that provides financial aid for scavengers transitioning to new occupations.
Fifty years old, BEZWASA WILSON has spent 32 years on his crusade, leading not only with a sense of moral outrage but also with remarkable skills in mass organizing, 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: “You are addressing all members of society, because no human being should be subjected to this inhuman practice.” Society itself has to be transformed.
In electing BEZWADA WILSON to receive the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India, reclaiming for the dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright.
Vice President of the Philippines Maria Leonor Robredo, Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, members of the Magsaysay family, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.
I am extremely happy and humbled by such an honour that everyone across Asia covets.
I am also here with mixed feelings to receive this award you have bestowed upon me.
I come from a socially discriminated community called Dalits, who have faced the worst form of oppression for generations over many centuries. Sadly, this form of oppression, equivalent to slavery, still continues in modern India, a country aspiring to be a world power.
Furthermore, I represent an even more segregated sections of Dalits who have been forced to do the most menial and extremely dehumanizing occupation in the world, that of manual scavenging—the cleaning and clearing of society’s human excreta manually with bare hands.
I therefore am delighted and grateful that you have chosen a humble son of such a community for this prestigious award. As I think of it, my heart swells with joy and my eyes fill with tears.
But the tears of joy are mixed with tears of grief and regret—that hundreds and thousands of my people have died and are dying in the soak pits. Millions more have succumbed gradually to incurable diseases; their kith and kin live in squalor, with little or no opportunities to improve their lives. I can go on and on to describe our pathetic conditions. But my people have also demonstrated their power of resilience.
This award goes to all the women who burnt their baskets to reject manual scavenging. And I dedicate this award to all those who lost their lives while cleaning the sewer lines. In this moment I remember my team members of Safai Karamchari Andolan spread across all states of India. They worked hard, indeed poured out sweat and blood, awakened an almost resigned community, produced evidence to fight our legal battles, lobbied with legislators, pressured an apathetic administration, demolished dry latrines—symbols of national shame—and, in 2010 and 2015, undertook a tedious bus journey traversing the country.
I also want to thank Dalit movements, women’s movements, social, secular and democratic movements, that have been fellow travelers in our journey. We have been natural allies in fighting casteist, patriarchal, and fascist forces.
I value your award as a fitting and significant recognition that will push forward our struggle in a huge way. It will boost my peoples’ determination to put an end to the obnoxious and inhuman practice. With your recognition, we are sure to gain more friends and supporters from across Asia and rest of the world, whose support is necessary to protect human dignity and human rights of all people similarly discriminated and stigmatized anywhere in the world.
In this connection, I wish to humbly remind you that there are now over 260 million people in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe who fall under the “discriminated” based on work and descent. I wish that the world awakens to their plight and support their just struggles.
I end here with what our great leader Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar had said, “Ours is not a fight for wealth or for power. It is the fight for reclamation of human dignity and personhood.” We will march on to annihilate caste.
Let us join hands to tear down the walls that divide humanity on the basis of birth, caste, race and gender and let us restore equality, equity, and freedom of all people.
Jai Bhim! Mabuhay!!