In India, manual scavenging is a blight on humanity. 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 one’s head the baskets of excrement to designated disposal sites. This degrading hereditary occupation involves 180,000 dalit households cleaning the 790,000 public and private dry latrines across India; 98 percent of scavengers are women and girls paid meager or no wages.
Bezwada Wilson’s dalit family had been engaged in manual scavenging for generations. Although spared from this labor to be the first in his family to pursue a higher education, he was nonetheless treated as an outcast in school. Filled with a great anger; he would later channel this anger to a lifelong crusade to eradicate manual scavenging.
He started by changing the mindsets of his family – to know that being dalits is not their fault but a status imposed by how society was organized, and that no one should be made to do such demeaning work as scavenging. His public crusade began when he sent a complaint about dry latrines to his town’s authorities and later, to the prime minister, threatening legal action.
Boldly and tirelessly, he carried his crusade to other states, working with dalit activists, recruiting volunteers for what became a movement of manual scavengers and their children, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). Under Wilson’s leadership, SKA undertook a mass latrine demolition drive; exposed the occupational violence faced by female scavengers; and met frequently with officials to demand that dry latrines be demolished and scavengers be provided alternative occupations. In 2011 SKA members and supporters marched all across India, and in 2015 completed a 125-day bus journey around the country, to mobilize the public against manual scavenging.
Now a nationwide network with 7,000 members, SKA has successfully lobbied for a new law that includes rehabilitation support for scavengers; it has secured scholarships for girl scavengers; it conducts vocational training for scavengers’ daughters to move them into more decent jobs.
Bezwada Wilson has spent 32 years on his crusade. Of the estimated 600,000 scavengers in India, SKA has liberated around 300,000. While the crusade’s core remains the dalits’ self-emancipation, for Wilson, 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.”