The 2016 Ramon Magsaysay awards have been announced and Berzwada Wilson, a Dalit activist born in Karnataka, has been felicitated for his work towards asserting the right for human dignity. Born in a community of manual scavengers in Kolar, Wilson saw his own parents clean toilets and carry human excreta as it was the only work they were ‘supposed to do’.
Frustrated about these conditions, Wilson decided not to follow suit and breakaway from the ages old boundations at the age of 17 or 18. According to an Outlook Magazine report, Wilson had his first direct encounter with manual scavenging in 1989 and that ‘he wanted to die’ while doing that.
To tackle this problem, he led a nationwide movement ‘safai karmachiari andolan’ bringing together Dalit activists. The movement was launched in 1993 after he filed a PIL in the Supreme Court listing nationwide violators of 1993 Prohibition Act. Manual scavanging was termed illegal under this Act, yet the practice had continued even after that.
Also an Ashoka Fellow, Wilson’s profile on their website reads: “His organization, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), has served as a watchdog pushing for legal action to demolish dry toilets across India and prepare manual scavengers, most of who are dalits, to pursue new sources of income. Through a strong volunteer network of 6900 members, who are either scavengers or their children, SKA has directly reached more than 3 lakh manual scavengers.”
It also states that because of his efforts the number of total manual scavengers in the country has come down to 2 lakh in 2013 from 15 lakh.
In an interview to Business Standard in April this year, Bezwada had mentioned that his organisation was not registered yet and was being run as a nationwide movement. They also fought and won a case in Supreme Court in 2014. The ruling said that those responsible for deaths of manual scavengers during work be sent to jail and victim’s family be compensated with Rs 10 Lakh.