According to the NGO Safai Karmachari Andolan, a safai karmachari (scavenger) dies every third day in a gutter on an average in our country.
Our poor brothers and sisters have been forced or lured by hard cash to completely dip themselves in sewer water without safety measures. Some of them die instantly after inhaling poisonous and nauseating gas. Others die a slow death after acquiring deadly infections.
Valmiki community’s engagement as manual scavengers is a glaring example of caste barrier in our society. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar said, “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.” Being a Dalit himself, Ambedkar had empathy with the socially challenged Dalit scavengers.
And now, we have among us a Dalit activist, Berzwada Wilson to take up the cause of the scavengers. Born in a community of manual scavengers in Kolar, Karnataka, he saw his own parents carrying human excreta as it was the only work they were supposed to do. The champions of meritocracy may argue that Wilson did not have the merit in him to choose his parents! And that ~ they may say ~ must have been the reason why he was born, as it were, with a broom in his hand instead of with a silver spoon in his mouth!
Be that as it may, when he was a teenager, he first started working as a manual scavenger. But while working, he had a death – like experience. This made him resolve to fight against the menace. Later, Wilson led a nationwide movement called “Safai Karmachari Andolan” and brought under it other Dalit activists. The movement was launched in 1993 after he filed a PIL in the Supreme Court of India listing nationwide violations of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. This organisation is also trying to find out better jobs for manual scavengers. He got Ramon Magsaysay award for his work in 2016.
Apart from strictly enforcing the 1993 Act, we need state-of-the-art technology for scavenging to stop such glaring human rights violations. The sanitation workers should immediately be provided with modern technology and tools so that they like their counterparts in developed countries, do not have an iota of direct exposure to sewage water, waste and poisonous gas. Moreover, Indian Railways must immediately replace all of their conventional train toilets by bio train toilets so that excreta of passengers may not fall along the tracks to be cleaned by our brothers and sisters. Indeed, we have to get out of the gutter.
Sujit De, Kolkata