This year’s prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson, who has dedicated his life to the eradication of manual scavenging, has tasted his first victory in Hyderabad this week as the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) has officially banned manual cleaning of drainage holes in the city.
Of course, the ban hasn’t come so easily as the civic body has been forced to announce it only after the tragic death of four persons who fell into a manhole at the posh Madhapur area in Hyderabad on 13 August evening. Three of them were professional scavengers, while another person was a cab driver who tried to rescue them. All of them died of inhaling methane and other poisonous gases in the manhole.
Wilson, who bagged the Magsaysay award under the community leadership category, was in the city at the time of the deaths and he and his team joined the funerals of the scavengers the next day. His selection for Asia’s prestigious award only a week before and his presence at the last rites of the three scavengers had prompted the GHMC authorities and the government to find a lasting solution to the vexed problem.
The GHMC has not just announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the kin of the families of the deceased scavengers and promised to support their children’s education, but also vowed to stop the practice of sending scavenging works into sewage lines and drainage pipes in the city which has a total 4.5 lakh manholes. In the past few years, as many as 27 scavengers died while cleaning manholes. Now, only machines would be used to clean sewage and manholes in the city.
Wilson, who spoke to The Sunday Guardian on his receiving the Magsaysay award as well as the first win over the authorities by forcing them to end the pernicious practice of manual scavenging in sewage lines, welcomed the GHMC’s decision. “I appreciate the decision to end manual cleaning of drainage and sewage lines in Hyderabad, but a lot more needs to be done,” he said.
Wilson, who founded the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) in 1995 with the purpose of manual scavenging occupation which is chiefly practised by some sub-castes of Dalits in the country, felt that the GHMC should not remove or retrench over 1,200 scavengers who manually clean manholes and sewage lines and a proper rehabilitation package should be implemented for them.
“Just for the sake of banning manual cleaning of sewage lines, the civic authorities should not render hundreds of people now employed in the profession jobless. They should all be given training for alternative jobs and a rehabilitation process should be put in place. Their children should be provided with education,” he said.
He pointed out that the three scavenging workers who died in Hyderabad belonged to an SC sub-caste and all them lived in a slum near Tarnaka. “The government should also make the third party, the contractors to own up responsibility for any deaths or injuries to the scavengers, besides registering criminal cases against them for violating the Supreme Court’s 1993 judgment prohibiting manual scavenging.”
Wilson admitted that his winning the Magsaysay award would certainly spread awareness among people in the country on the dangerous conditions in which manual scavengers are living. “Hundreds of scavengers die every year due to poisonous gases while cleaning latrines and sewage pits. These are not accidents, but manmade forced deaths or deliberate killings by the system,” he said.
Asked about the willingness of those who are engaged in manual scavenging to change their jobs, Wilson said that they were ready to switch over to newer occupations, provided the government was able to offer them alternate livelihoods. “They are eligible for a financial assistance of up to Rs 15 lakh. The officials should instill confidence among them that a new lease of life was before them,” he said.
Wilson said that those who have been engaged in manual scavenging belonged to the lowest-strata of society and most of them are Dalits living in sub-human conditions. Their uplift should be a multi-pronged activity. Providing financial assistance for their rehabilitation and education to their children are part of the activity.
Wilson was happy about the Swachh Bharat concept and drive. But he was apprehensive of the consequences of constructing around 12 crore individual toilets in three years which may require manual scavenging to clean them. “What if the toilets and septic tanks lead to further engagement of manual scavengers?” he asked.
Instead, the government can go for massive construction of underground drainage systems and supply of suction machines which would automatically clean toilets and septic tanks. “Modernisation and mechanisation of toilets alone would solve the problem of manual scavengers who have been cursed over centuries to take up this wretched occupation,” said Wilson.
So far, manual scavenging has been abolished in as many as 140 districts in the country, while it is still practised in another 250 districts. A vast majority of people are still engaging manual scavengers for want of awareness or alternatives. The enactment of Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 is still ineffective in the country, he said.
Wilson urged the Centre to spend the entire amount of Rs 4,650 crore allocated by the erstwhile Planning Commission for eradication of manual scavenging in the next few years. “This amount was supposed to be spent on rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families. Though the last plan has been wound up, the money allocated for manual scavengers can be spent on them,” said Wilson.