Photo by Hrishikesh Bhatt
Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson is active not only to end the plight of sanitation workers in the country but also untouchability. Our editor spoke to him about the recent controversies that have brought Dalit issues to the fore. Excerpts:
In a recent interview you said that Government’s project of making 12 crore toilets is a regressive step? What is the basis of it? What could be the solution?
See, there are two things about which we are talking and finding solutions. One is about the toilets and another is about liberation of people who are involved in manual scavenging. So the country or the PM must prioritize which is important. Once you decide you have to balance things. There are two things, first we have acute shortage of toilets and that is proven by various reports. We have to have proper sanitation for everyone and there is no doubt about that. But before that we must see that who is cleaning existing toilets? And also what kind of toilets we are using. These are dry latrines which are cleaned by a section of people who are Dalits.
It is not by accident. It is being done by design. There is a perspective. The society has pushed Dalits to do it. For that there is a problem of untouchably and nobody is talking about it. Nobody is trying to address this problem.
The second point is that we have an existing toilet cleaning system in the country. We have one system and one is city system which is underground and the entire human excreta goes into the rivers polluting them majorly. We don’t have good sewage treatment plants. In fact what we call rivers are actually drains where city waste is flowing. Luckily the rivers are so huge that we are unable to pollute them fully otherwise our science and technology has not produced anything which can treat human excreta fully. We have not done anything to clean them.
The second thing is the use of septic tanks. In the majority of cities we don’t have system of sharing septic tanks. So to clean them we have not developed any mechanism as such. We have tankers but they can’t go everywhere. No municipality in the country can claim that they have developed a mechanised system of cleaning toilets without human interventions.
Third point is that you have Indian Railways which throws human excreta on the tracks of railway stations and force human being to clean it. You have employed human beings and not machines. You have converted only 500 toilets in railway coaches whereas there are 1,78,000 rail coach toilets. Our Railway minister happily announces in every budget about conversion of 500 rail coaches toilets but forgets about more than a lakh.
Now everybody knows how dangerous is sewer line cleaning. People are regularly dying while cleaning them. Precious life is lost. This is done despite the standing orders of Supreme Court against this. There is an act also that prohibits this. When are you going to stop cleaning one human being’s excreta by another human being? Without making proper arrangements for cleaning them you are making toilets after toilets thus creating more and more deaths in the name of Swachh Bharat. Let the Government come and announce that there will not be any deaths while cleaning sewer lines. This is absolutely necessary.
How do you see the agitation of Dalits in Gujarat? Is it a kind uprising?
Una is just a small incident happening. The fact is that unrest and the agony within the Dalit community is huge. Una is the smallest thing to happen and when it came out the country was unable to bear it. The country must understand that the unrest and agony in Dalits is 10,000 times bigger than that of Una. So the country must come with open heart and discuss this big matter properly. We must not suppress and deny it. Now the time has come.
After the Gujarat incident they are saying this is your Gau your mata, now take your mata with you. Take it wherever you want or cremate it but we won’t touch it. They are saying it very clearly. This is a natural reaction and not a revolution. This is a 5,000 year old anger. They are not saying you clean our shit although they can say so. But they are so good. This is a democratic country and they want their pie in development or whatever is being given to others.
How can Dalits be uplifted? They are themselves a divided lot ridden with casteism and such evils. Is it not hampering their progress?
The caste system itself is created to make more fractions in the society. It was made to divide. The casiest mind treats you like a subhuman being. From there you have to come out. It is like a continuous battle. The civil society never allows us to go up. There is a kind of discrimination everywhere including at Government Secretary level. We don’t have a Dalit Secretary. We talk about reservation and affirmative action but in practical very little is happening. If you go to Maharashtra there is sanitation work reserved for Dalits which means they want to keep them in chains. They have even made a law to this effect. They want them to believe that this is good for them. But for us this is a kind of modern untouchability. They want to believe them this. Instead of this Government should take progressive steps. Only reservation will not do.
We have only one way that is through Ambedkar’s thought. This is the most effective way. When everybody understands theory of Baba Saheb and follow it then there will be a social revolution.
Will inter-caste marriages improve situation and help Dalit cause?
Inter-caste marriage is one of the solutions. Ambedkar also promoted it. I don’t call it inter-caste marriage but marriage between human beings. We have to promote it. If somebody does it we should promote it. We must break caste barriers.
How do you think this social discrimination can be ended? What will be the easiest way?
The easiest way is through Indian constitution. It has everything in it. If we are courageous enough to implement it without any bias we will certainly achieve positive results. We should not have caste bias, no religious bias, no linguistic bias and no gender bias. We are equal human beings. Untouchability is a virus and State should develop proper software for it. In this case state intervention is a must. It must take responsibility. We should also not think of solutions out of State. It is there to help us. State must come to solve this through its vast powers.