IMPACT
07/28/2016 12:33 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

Activist Helping Lower Castes In India Forced To Clean Toilet Feces By Hand

He won Asia's Nobel prize equivalent for his work.
60 year old manual scavenger Kela carrying a basket of human excrement her head after cleaning toilets in Nekpur village, Mur
PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
60 year old manual scavenger Kela carrying a basket of human excrement her head after cleaning toilets in Nekpur village, Muradnagar in Uttar Pradesh, some 40 kms east of New Delhi. Already illegal under a largely ineffective 1993 law, the government has promised to have another go at stamping out the practice with new legislation set to come up in the last parliament session of the year, which opens this week. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH

CHENNAI, India, July 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian activist who helped to set up a human rights group campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, a euphemism for disposing of faeces by hand, was awarded Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel prize on Wednesday.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation named Bezwada Wilson one of six winners this year, citing his “moral energy and prodigious skill in leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India”.

Disposing of faeces from dry toilets and open drains by hand to be carried on the head in baskets to disposal sites, has long been an occupation thrust upon members of the Dalit group, traditionally the lowest ranked in India’s caste system.

At least 90 percent of India’s estimated one million manual scavengers are women, a hereditary occupation involving 180,000 Dalit households cleaning the more than 700,000 public and private dry latrines across the country.

India's Bezwada Wilson, who is among the six recipients of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, talks to journalists at the Saf
ASSOCIATED PRESS
India's Bezwada Wilson, who is among the six recipients of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, talks to journalists at the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) office in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 27, 2016. Wilson, who was the first in his Dalit family to pursue higher education, is being honored for his 32-year crusade. He recruited volunteers and worked with Dalit activists to organize a people's movement called Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) that has filed cases and liberated around half of an estimated 600,000 people from manually removing human excrement from dry latrines. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Wilson, 50, whose own family had been engaged in manual scavenging for generations, said the award was recognition for women workers who had said no to scavenging.

“The struggle is at the ground level and the challenge is to overthrow a deeply caste ridden attitude,” Wilson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“The real heroes are the women who organised themselves, questioned the practice and understood that no one is born into such forms of exploitation,” he added.

In this picture taken on August 10, 2012, 60 year old manual scavenger Kela dumping a basket of human excrement after cleanin
PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
In this picture taken on August 10, 2012, 60 year old manual scavenger Kela dumping a basket of human excrement after cleaning toilets in Nekpur village, Muradnagar in Uttar Pradesh, some 40 kms east of New Delhi. Already illegal under a largely ineffective 1993 law, the government has promised to have another go at stamping out the practice with new legislation set to come up in the last parliament session of the year, which opens this week. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH

 

Wilson was spared from manual scavenging to be the first in his family to pursue higher education, the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation said.

He went on to recruit volunteers for what would become Safai Karmachari Andolan, a movement of manual scavengers and their children. Started in 1995, it has since grown into a national movement spread over 25 states of India.

“Nobody gets into a septic tank or sewer line because they want to and knowing that they could die,” Wilson said. “But deaths are increasing and that reality cannot be ignored.”

India, which banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, has passed several laws to end manual scavenging with government pledges to modernise sanitation and criminalise those who employ manual scavengers.

Legislation passed in December further tightened penalties.

“There is a ban but there is no enforcement of it,” Wilson said.

“Cases need to be filed against people who encourage this practice. If the law is enforced, manual scavenging can be eradicated in a short time.”

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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