“Why do they call me Thotti in school?”, the six-year-old would ask his mother, Rachel, and she would dismiss his doubts by pointing to the garbage dump outside their home at the sweepers’ colony in Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), a mining town 30 km from the district headquarters of Kolar in Karnataka. “Don’t worry,” she would say. ‘They call you that because this thotti (garbage dump in Telugu) is so close to our house.”
That’s how Bezwada Wilson grew up, believing Thotti was a mere geographical marker, a landmark, even if “not very pretty”, in a town known for its gold mines and colonial past. It was much later that he realised the name was a powerful social marker, a tool to discriminate, to tell the little boy his place. “When I was a child, my mother’s explanation was enough for me,” says Wilson, 50, who, along with Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, is among the Indian winners of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay award.
Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), has, for decades, been working to eradicate manual scavenging in India. “At KGF, I was like any other child. I saw no caste, didn’t know what it meant. I thought people spoke different languages but were essentially the same,” he says, sitting at the SKA office in Delhi.
It didn’t take long for that child’s world to unravel. He found out through conversations at home and through snide comments by “friends” at school that he was called “Thotti” because that’s what he was born as. He was, they told him, an “untouchable”.
The Thottis, a community whose members work as scavengers and who are listed as Scheduled Castes, manually remove human excrement from dry latrines. Those days, says Wilson, 107 manual scavengers would turn up every morning at KGF’s 236 community dry latrines, each carrying a broom and a tin sheet. The workers, most of them women, would scoop out the human waste, collect them in baskets and empty these into tractor trolleys, from where they would be transported to dumps on the outskirts of the town. Wilson realised that only the Thottis did this and that he was one of them.
Wilson had to move out of the Telugu-medium school he was studying in after Class IV and he got into a school at Kuppam, 29 km from KGF and across the border in Andhra Pradesh. It was here that Wilson realised that try as he might, he couldn’t rid himself of his caste. “As a child, I would never give up during fights. They would tell me, ‘Your old school doesn’t even have benches’; I would tell them, ‘So what, I can even sleep on the floor’. They would say, ‘Your school is so small’; I would say, ‘So what, we have a huge tree and you don’t have that’. But they would call me a Thotti and an untouchable and suddenly, I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s very difficult to digest that you are an untouchable, more so for a child.”
The young boy who thought he had the answers to everything gradually realised he didn’t even know who he was. Or what his parents were. “My father and mother both worked as manual scavengers for the Bharat Gold Mines Limited in KGF, but that was before I was born. My brother did it too. But my mother was fiercely protective about me. She was determined not to let me know about it. All she wanted was for me to study. But the more she protected me, the more curious I got,” says Wilson.
After Class X, he enrolled himself at the KGF First Grade College, but soon dropped out. He worked with Dr Y Moses, a social activist who set up an educational and vocational centre in KGF for the Thottis, where he coached youths and encouraged them to sit for the Class X exams. Wilson would also counsel manual scavengers, many of whom were alcoholics.
It was during one such session that Wilson met a manual scavenger who said he wouldn’t stop drinking. “He said, ‘I won’t be able to work if I don’t drink’. When I sounded sceptical, he said, ‘Why don’t you come and see what we do?’”
That was the first time Wilson saw what his mother never wanted him to see. The sight was revolting — men and women carrying buckets of human waste and dumping them into a large pit. “Suddenly, one man pushed his bucket in and it sunk into the waste. He dived right in to retrieve his bucket. I started shouting, ‘Stop him. What are you doing? This is not right.’ Nobody bothered, they had a job to do. I begged an elderly woman nearby to tell the men to stop. She finally got them to stop and we spoke. I asked them to promise me that they would never do what they were doing. They agreed because I was so hysterical but I could see they had no choice — they would go back to their jobs the next morning,” he says.
Wilson says the events of that evening had left him utterly drained. “‘Didn’t I tell you not to go there? I wanted you to study and you dropped out,’ my mother told me. I had no energy left in me to argue with her, but the next morning, I packed my bags and left home.”
He spent the next few years touring the country, attending rallies, where he spoke about manual scavenging. That’s also when he discovered BR Ambedkar. “I read a lot of Ambedkar and that gave me a new perspective. It helped me link caste with patriarchy. That’s when I realised that these are twin enemies, you can’t eliminate one without eliminating the other. If you see, 98 per cent of the scavengers are women. Men do these jobs only where there is money to be made, like in the Indian Railways,” he says.
It was in 1991-’92 that Wilson met SR Sankaran, an IAS officer who held several posts in the government, including as chief secretary of Tripura, and who was known for his work among SCs and STs. With Sankaran as his mentor and with the support of activists such as Anuradha Konkepudi, Deepthi Sukumar and Moses, Wilson motivated scavenging communities from across the country as they held rallies, agitated, burned their baskets and moved the highest courts to demand the eradication of manual scavenging.
In 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed, but for Wilson and others, the battle had just begun. Wilson says the penal provisions of the law — two-year imprisonment and Rs 1 lakh in fine — were never implemented and states simply did nothing. Not a single violator has been prosecuted in the over two decades of the Act’s implementation, says Wilson.
The same year, with Wilson as convenor and Sankaran as his mentor, SKA was set up as a national coalition of several outfits that worked to eliminate manual scavenging.
In 2003, 10 years after the Act came into effect, SKA moved the Supreme Court against the failure of the Central and state governments to implement the law. SKA’s writ petition in the Supreme Court said the existence of dry latrines in various parts of the country was a violation of human dignity and of the Constitution.
In 2013, as the result of sustained activism by the SKA, the government amended the Act to cover those cleaning septic tanks, sewers, open drains and railway tracks.
SKA estimates that there are still around 6,07,000 manual scavengers in the country. The number, Wilson says, “would be much higher if you count those cleaning septic tanks, etc. The government doesn’t even have an estimate of the number of safai karamcharis in the country. They know how many televisions there are in the country, how many of them are colour and how many black and white, but they don’t have data for manual scavengers,” he says.
Wilson says nothing angers him more than the government’s indifference. “Every year, around 1,370 people die in septic tanks which they go down to clean. When are we going to stop killing our own people? If the government does nothing for their rehabilitation, we will be forced to declare these deaths as political murders by successive governments,” he says, raising his voice for the first time during the conversation. The Magsaysay award, he says, “will go to all those women who have been cleaning the shit of the upper castes for centuries despite the no-cooperation of governments.”