Fifty-year-old Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), that he started, is one of the six recipients of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award by the Philippines-based award foundation, in Manila on Wednesday. He has been awarded this in recognition of his efforts to eradicate manual scavenging.

Manual scavenging is one of the most demeaning and inhuman jobs that requires manual picking up of human excrement from dry toilets. These manual scavengers pick it up, collect it in buckets and dispose them off elsewhere.

According to the award citation, Mr. Wilson’s work in “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity” has helped liberate around 300,000 scavengers in India, out of the 600,000 scavengers.

Mr. Wilson, who hailed from a Dalit Family in Kolar, first experienced this practice in 1986-87, when he saw poor Dalit women cleaning human waste in the public latrines of Kolar Gold Fields. His own family members had been manual scavengers for generations.

“It was a big town, and in those days KGF was known to be the most electrified town after Tokyo,” he said. Yet, the town lacked public toilets with running water. Moved by the plight of the women who had to clean them every day, Mr. Wilson decided to petition the local town municipality to improve facilities.

According to the citation, he sent a complaint in 1986 to the authorities and when it was ignored, he sent the complaint to the Prime Minister, threatening legal action. As a result, the town’s dry latrines were converted into water-seal latrines and the scavengers transferred to non-scavenging jobs.

Despite his 32 years of activism, Mr. Wilson says challenges remain in putting an end to the practice. “No thorough survey has been conducted as yet to enumerate manual scavengers though State governments have been promising one since 2010,” he said. He added that the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should also address the plight of manual scavengers.

Mr. Wilson formed the SKA as a network of activists in 1993. A PIL he filed in the Supreme Court, naming all the States, Union Territories, and relevant government departments as violators of the 1993 Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act, produced positive results. In 2014, the SC ruled in his favour demanding that all States ban manual scavenging and even fixed a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh for families of scavengers who had died on the job.

“In 2014, we gave the Centre a list of 1,073 people who had died while cleaning sewers, but the families of the dead are yet to be compensated fully. Only 36 people from the families of dead sewer cleaners have been compensated, but they did not get the full amount prescribed by the court,” he said.

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