The 2016 Magsaysay Award winner’s journey is one of courage, passion, perseverance and hope.
The first phone call I received yesterday morning was from a friend, excitedly informing me that Bezwada Wilson had been awarded the Magsaysay Award. In that moment of savouring the news, I couldn’t help but remember the journey and accomplishments of this courageous and steadfast activist. How privileged I am for having walked with him part of the way, as the lawyer for the Safai Karamchari Andolan, in its historic litigation seeking an end to manual scavenging in India. Manual scavenging, or the practice of manually removing human excreta from dry latrines, is perhaps the most abhorrent practice of caste-based enslavement in our country. Manual scavengers are treated as untouchables not only by other caste groups, but often by other Dalit castes as well.
In 2003, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, headed by Wilson, approached the Supreme Court by way of a writ petition seeking implementation of the 1993 law that prohibited manual scavenging – a law that has been observed more in the breach. The petition was grounded in the constitution. Article 17 of the constitution (included in the fundamental rights chapter) prohibits untouchability, making it a constitutional crime, and Article 21 protects the right to a life with dignity. The petition unambiguously stated that manual scavenging is both a source and a result of the horribly cruel social exclusion rooted in notions of pollution, and therefore the continued practice of this ‘disability’ has no place in the vision of an independent India.
Wilson’s argument, rigorously supported by extensive documentation, was straightforward – manual scavengers must be liberated and their right to a life of dignity must be restored. Little did he realise what an uphill task this would be.
When the petition came up for hearing for the first time, the judges hearing it were so taken aback by its revelations that they heard the submissions of the petitioners’ counsel for close to an hour, putting on hold the long list of other cases before them that day. Wilson had come to the Supreme Court for the first time in his life. He remembers the overwhelming sense of confusion that assailed him in those somewhat overpowering environs. As a result, he recollects, the significance of the words “issue notice” spoken by the judges in their characteristically stern manner, quite escaped him at the time.
It was only a few months later that the Andolan realised how, in a quiet but significant manner, the ground had shifted. In a conversation spanning the decade that I have known Wilson, he has spoken at length about how earlier efforts to meet district administration officials would usually end in disappointment for the Andolan. More often than not, government officials treated Andolan members with derision, demonstrating unmistakable resonance of their own fear of ‘pollution’ from such interactions, rare as they were. But as the ‘notices’ issued by the Supreme Court quietly made their way down the bureaucratic chain of command, Andolan members found they were being treated with new respect and sometimes with a degree of apprehension. The movement was galvanised into new areas of intervention and mobilisation.
Taking over the reins of the case a few years later, I still remember my consternation at the fact that the practice of manual scavenging had not, in fact, been eradicated ‘lo-o-ng ago’ as we had been taught in law school. The implementation of the constitutional and statutory provisions had seemed a simple, obvious and inevitable step to me at the time. It was far from simple. From the time the writ petition was submitted till the final judgment of the court in 2014, the biggest challenge for the Andolan was to tear away the invisibilisation of this heinous practice and the dogged refusal of state governments to acknowledge the existence of manual scavengers.
Undaunted, Wilson took every challenge in his stride. Orders passed by the Supreme Court were quickly translated by his team at the Andolan into local languages, to coincide with their campaign for the liberation of manual scavengers from their age-old degradation by society. Whether at demonstrations where wicker baskets traditionally used to carry human excreta were symbolically burnt, rallies where dry latrines were physically demolished or even during representations before the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at Geneva, the cry for freedom rang out with piercing clarity, both inside and outside the courtroom.
Struggles, setbacks and continuing hope
It was not always smooth sailing. Setbacks are part of any struggle, but it takes rare vision to convert a setback into an opportunity for growth. In August 2008, what was expected to be a routine hearing went horribly wrong. The writ petition was listed before a new set of judges – a common enough occurrence, except that they raised a barrage of questions challenging the very foundation of the case. The court refused to believe that any practice like manual scavenging still existed and its disbelief was opportunistically fuelled by the government counsel present who argued that manual scavenging was a thing of the past.
On the verge of dismissing the writ proceedings as frivolous, the court relented at the last moment, but only to pass an order directing us to produce evidence on “whether the manual scavenging is still continued and if so, in which parts of the country”.
Stunned by the court’s antagonism, I sank down on the steps outside court no. 1, overcome with despair. After seven years of crawling forward, one painful inch at a time, we were back to square one. In a telling reversal of roles, Wilson put a kindly arm around my shoulders and reassured me that this was not the end of the road. We would surmount this hurdle too, he said.
True to his word, Wilson spearheaded the Safai Karamchari Andolan into turning the lowest point of the litigation into an unprecedented success. Pulling out all stops, it launched a mobilisation at the ground which saw hundreds of volunteers, drawn from the community, fan out across the country to conduct surveys of people engaged in manual scavenging. Six months later, we placed before the court detailed survey reports, detailing not only numbers of manual scavengers actually engaged in the practice on a daily basis but also their socio-economic status, their locations, their dependents, the names and addresses of the owners of the dry latrines where they worked and a glimpse into their dreams and aspirations for a better life. Hundreds of pages of carefully collated data submitted on sworn affidavits were supplemented by photographic evidence chronicling the lives of some of the manual scavengers who had consented to have their private horror stories narrated before the court.
We argued that the state governments continued to either outrightly deny the very existence of the practice of manual scavenging or underplay its existence by indulging in verbal gymnastics; and that this denial was in itself a violation of the constitution.
The same court which had almost thrown us out six months ago turned upon the state governments in fury this time. Going beyond the framework of the ‘prayers’ in the writ petition, the court issued ‘show cause’ notices to the district collectors of all the areas from where we had collected evidence of manual scavenging.
The directions, issued by a bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, were widely reported in the press and caused an unprecedented wave of action, due in no small part to Wilson’s ability to quickly galvanise the movement. As the Supreme Court registry issued show cause notices to concerned district collectors by name, the same volunteers who had assisted in conducting the surveys were now mobilised to propel these officers to demolish the dry latrines and provide alternative employment to manual scavengers. In Haryana, the first criminal prosecutions in the history of the 1993 Act were launched against 22 dry latrine owners, who were also arrested and imprisoned, albeit only for a few days.
The court’s orders resonated in adjoining areas as well. On the basis of these orders, activists of the Safai Karamchari Andolan were able to convince district administrations in other parts of the country to remove dry latrines. In several areas, manual scavengers who had been working in these dry latrines were provided rehabilitation, even employment, under previously languishing government schemes.
A legal win
The hearings continued for several years thereafter, through many more ups and downs, till the final judgment was pronounced in March 2014 bringing the decade-long writ proceedings to a close. In its judgment, the Supreme Court traced the historical connection between the constitutional prohibition of untouchability under Article 17 and the practice of manual scavenging. The judgment asserted that where the practice of manual scavenging continues, it does so in violation of the constitutional mandate as well as statutory law. A number of specific directions for implementing the law were issued with the purpose of rehabilitating manual scavengers and providing them a real alternative. The court also issued a directive that families of sewage workers who have died while working in sewers be paid a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each.
This was a historical moment, and in his matter-of-fact way Wilson took the opportunity to celebrate all the lawyers and law researchers who had been part of this long journey – all 22 of us! At a typically low-key gathering, we shared memories over an evening punctuated by laughter, even as the man whose courage had carried the show allowed himself to be lighthearted for a few hours.
Almost immediately, and without missing a beat, Wilson started working on the next phase of the struggle – getting the government to implement the directions of the court and ensuring that the relief actually reaches those who took the brave steps of ‘burning their baskets’ and pledging to live a life of freedom. In December last year, the Safai Karamchari Andolan undertook a 125-day Bhim Yatra to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar. Traversing 300 districts in 30 states and union territories, the Bhim Yatra culminated in Delhi on April 13. As many of the yatris shared heartbreaking stories of tragedy and loss, Wilson himself remained behind the scenes, talking, sharing and encouraging members of the community to take the centre stage. Immersed in slogans and songs, what was clearly apparent to me was the solidarity among the yatris, surmounting barriers of language, age and culture. I could not help but think how this environment of camaraderie is so typical of Wilson, who has always found a reason to hope and celebrate in the darkest of times.
Knowing Wilson, he will see the award as a vindication of the hopes of all the people that he has worked with and for, with boundless love. And without wasting any time he will be back to work. It is the growing gleam of strength and dignity in the eyes of his people that is his real reward.
Shomona Khanna is a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi high court, with a focus on the rights of indigenous peoples and Dalits.