The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, based in Manila, has struck a blow for Indian dalits, by conferring its award on Bezwada Wilson, in recognition of his work for the eradication of dry latrines and manual scavenging.
Although declared illegal in 1993, manual scavenging, as a profession, still has takers in India, especially among dalits. The demeaning task of manually cleaning up excreta from dry latrines and sewers was originally a caste-based profession.
Not only does the practice socially degrade the workers and their families, but it also leads to a host of health problems and chains them to penury.
Wilson has been a crusader against the inhumane profession for 30 years. Born in a family of scavengers, he had seen children use their bare hands to clean dry latrines. Such harrowing experiences spurred him on to dedicate his life towards the abolition of the practice.
He has mobilised over 7,000 volunteers, under his Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) banner, seeking to demolish all dry latrines in the country and provide a better life for the workers.
The 2015 Socio-Economic Caste Census data puts the number of scavengers at 1,80,657. There were over 15 lakh such workers in 1993, says the SKA.
Although the number of scavengers has drastically reduced over the years, Wilson has fought many a bitter battle with the establishment, for the lack of a whole-hearted commitment to the cause.
Although Parliament had enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 to prohibit the hiring of manual scavengers, nobody was convicted during the 20 years it was in force.
On the continued insistence of NGOs and activists, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was enacted in Parliament to eliminate insanitary latrines and to conduct regular surveys.
Four days before Wilson was conferred the award, a newspaper had reported a gross mismatch between the number of dry latrines and manual scavengers in a government report submitted at a review meeting held on July 21 by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
According to the government report, Telangana had 1,57,321 dry latrines in 2015 but zero scavengers and Chhattisgarh had 4,391 dry latrines and three manual scavengers. The social justice and empowerment ministry and the urban development ministry are responsible for easing people out of manual scavenging. But an August 2015 report by the ministry identified only 12,700 dry latrines in the country, exposing the sluggish pace of addressing the problem.
Also, the Press Information Bureau has noted that banks are hesitant to provide loans to manual scavengers because of low rate of recovery of these loans. The Modi government's Swachh Bharat Abhiyan counts the “conversion of dry toilets into sanitary, flushing ones” as one of its aims, but NGOs say the lofty idea has largely remained on paper.