[WSMDiscuss] A Perspective on Indian Society and Polity from Below

Umakant uk4in at yahoo.co.in
Fri Apr 19 12:53:16 CEST 2019

Dear Friends 

Greetings! Pasted here and on thelink given below you could read an opinion piece which very well describes aperspective on Indian society and polity from below. 


Do pass it on to others in yourcircle/network. 


A Long Fightto End a Vile Job

Priya Ramani, Opinion, LiveMint, Updated: 19 Apr 2019 



The first timeBezwada Wilson, 53, witnessed the actual act of manual scavenging in the large,British-era dry latrines of the Bharat Gold Mines of the Kolar Gold Fields(KGF) in Karnataka, he tells me, his world was suddenly divided into two kindsof people: People who defecate and people who clean their shit. He saw everyonearound him through this prism.


As the teenagerwatched people from his Thotti Dalit community empty the big pit of humanexcreta and load it on to a tanker, bucket by bucket, immersing a hand and thenfeet in the brimming pit when a bucket suddenly fell, he understood clearlythat this inhuman practice needed to end.


Most manualscavengers at the KGF just said they worked in the gold mines, preferring tokeep the details vague and hoping that people would imagine they were minersdigging for gold.


Both his father andhis eldest brother worked as manual scavengers in the toilets on the groundsoutside these mines. His eldest brother hid this from most people; his wifeonly found out exactly what he did after eight years of marriage.


Whenever she askedhim about the foul smell that lingered around him, he would say he had driventhe tractor loaded with human excreta to the dumping ground. “He’s illiteratebut even now he carries pens in his pocket so you believe he’s educated,"Wilson says.


Back then, Wilson wasa class XII drop-out who conducted functional literacy classes every eveningfor the women from the Telugu-speaking families of manual scavengers. He triedto understand why so many people from his community were alcoholics (theyneeded to drink to numb the effect of the work they did, they told him). He wasanguished when he finally saw their work first-hand, but didn’t have thevocabulary to convince them they had the right to a different life.


His relentless,informal talks with people were labelled “spreading awareness", and whenhe called them and they showed up, he was lauded for his “organizationalskills". He knew a few English words and his early notes to the managementof the mines or the prime minister simply read: “Manual scavenging no good.Very, very dangerous" or “Stop manual scavenging immediately". Heknew this last word because it was often used to communicate urgency intelegrams.


Eventually, throughsheer doggedness, an instinctive understanding of the place he had grown up in,and a threat of legal action if the mine management didn’t reply in “21days" (a classic Indian psychological trick he learnt from someone, hesays), Wilson managed to get the mines to demolish the dry latrines. He becamefamous in Karnataka and neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, recounting his successstory in many districts.


We meet at the eastDelhi office of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a movement Wilsonco-founded about a decade later, in 1993, to eradicate manual scavenging andone he has formally worked with since as national convener. His office employs18 mostly young people and Wilson remains unfazed by the work habits ofmillennials. “They come and go. I have no clue about them. Someone will send mea message at 2pm saying I’m not coming because I just woke up. But they arealways there when I need them." 


Political theoristand fellow Dalit activist Kancha Ilaiah occasionally advises him to try adifferent approach. “He tells me to stop all this and start English-mediumschools instead," says Wilson, who speaks in a mix of Hindi and English.But the 2016 Magsaysay Award winner is not budging until we rehabilitate anestimated 770,000 manual scavengers (mostly women) and end the worst occupationin this country.


Earlier this month,the SKA released a manifesto that should be more important to all Indians thanthe manifesto of their favourite political party. It provides a road map to anygovernment to liberate and rehabilitate manual scavengers. It demands bettereducation for their children, who are routinely discriminated against, andexcluded, in schools. It asks for greater enforcement of already existing lawssuch as the landmark Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and theirRehabilitation Act, 2013, a special session of Parliament to debate this issueas well as proper compensation for manhole and septic tank deaths. There havebeen 389 safaikaramchari deaths during Narendra Modi’s tenure, a prime ministerwho has campaigned relentlessly about Swachh Bharat. And 33 just in the firstthree months of 2019, says Wilson. The manifesto follows SKA’s powerful socialmedia campaign #StopKillingUs against sewer deaths, launched last October.


Wilson—who opposedthe Aadhaar card in court—wants the government to instead issue a Right toLife-21 card to all safaikaramcharis and their families across India. The 21 here, as youmay have gathered, refers to Article 21 of the Constitution, which guaranteesthe right to life and personal liberty. The SKA has also reiterated itslong-standing demand for a public apology from the prime minister for thehistorical injustices meted out to the community.


Wilson’s parentsseparated for seven years though he still doesn’t know why, he says. He was bornthe year after his mother returned home, a miracle baby, the youngest of four,separated in age from his eldest brother by 20 years, and his mother wasdetermined he would study. She even stayed with her son for a few years in aboys’ hostel because he couldn’t bear to be separated from her.


Over the years,Wilson went from being sympathetic to his community to feeling angry abouttheir sense of helplessness and fatalism to finally understanding the bigpicture. His formal journey of caste consciousness began in 1990 at thecentenary celebrations for B.R. Ambedkar. “For the first time, I understoodthat we are scavengers not because we are illiterate or poor but because we areborn into a caste," he says. “I started relating all my personal experiencesto this history of my people."


Wilson has arepertoire of tough questions. On a recent episode of the podcast Suno India,for example, he raises a few. Why do we spend so much time on a publicdiscourse about constructing toilets and ignore the problem of dry latrines?Why do we discuss garbage and not shit? Why is the conversation around toiletspatriarchal and centred around protecting women’s bodies? Why do we mourn thedeaths of some Indians more than others? Why did Narendra Modi wash the feet offive manual scavengers at the Kumbh Mela in February? For the last, he has aneasy answer. Wilson says the PM has never expressed sympathy for the deaths ofsewer workers or given a single rupee in compensation to their families. Whenhe met them, he had to manipulate the headlines so this wouldn’t behighlighted. And, indeed, all the news stories focused on how Modi was thefirst PM to wash the feet of safaikaramcharis.


Even if you don’thave time to contemplate these questions, Wilson’s bottom line for Indians issimple: It’s time we took ownership of our shit. 




With Regards and InSolidarity 

Umakant, Ph. D 

New Delhi 


My final words of advice to you are educate, agitate and organize; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality. 
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