'I realised we are not doing scavenging because we are illiterate or poor. We are doing it because of the way society is organised,' says Bezwada Wilson, who has been awarded the Magsaysay Prize.
Bezwada Wilson has spent his life organising safai karamcharis. He tells Aditi Phadnis that every Indian has the responsibility of ending the dehumanising practice of manual scavenging.
When did you start working on the campaign to end manual scavenging?
I was born in Kolar, Karnataka -- home to the Kolar gold fields; the second city in Asia to be fully electrified because of the Sivasamudram hydel power project. Also, a city served by manual scavenging.
I was born in a community of manual scavengers. My parents did that work, as did others around me: They would have to go to dry latrines, fill buckets with human excreta, load it on to tankers, which would then take it to the open outskirts of the city for dumping.
My parents, my brothers, my sisters -- they all did this work. Everybody used to drink a lot. Their stock answer was: 'If we don't drink, how do we do this?'
I started thinking about this issue in 1982. I began talking to my community. They would challenge me when I said, 'You should not do this work.'
I was one of them, and they were like children, putting their hands into it, like a child plays with mud.
How difficult it is to accept those images... They are fellow human beings, lifting excreta of other human beings; accepting it. Why? It was painful.
What was the turning point?
It came on a hot summer day in 1982. On hot days the excreta hardens; it is difficult to scrape off. I was talking to some of them when they were working.
Then, something came over me. I was 17 or 18. I was full of anger and frustration. I was trying to tell them they must stop this and they were humouring me.
I suddenly lost control. I ran towards the buckets of excreta, broke them, then rolled on it, on the ground, screaming. I shouted and I cried and I picked up the night soil with my hands and threw it.
My relatives saw this and suddenly sober, realised something was happening to me. When I was exhausted, they calmed me and then said, 'Let us go and have some tea.'
I was crying. At that age, you have a lot of arrogance. My arrogance was meeting a brick wall. I was telling them they must stop and they were telling me they would, but were continuing to do the same degrading, horrible work.
I said, 'You have to promise me -- you will never do this.' I was such a fool: What did I expect them to say? That they would give up their livelihood, the only thing they knew how to do?
The only thing society tells them they can do? But at that time, the women could see I would have a breakdown.
So they pacified me. 'Okay,' they said, 'We won't do it, you stop crying and calm down.' They said: 'We will explain it to you...'
When they sensed I was a bit calmer, they said, 'He should not be alone.' They escorted me to my parents. I reached home and I was numb. Everyone at home tried to counsel me. My parents said, 'Why should you make such a fuss about this? What we do is nothing extraordinary. Other people do manual labour, we do this. Why are you taking it to heart?'
How did you recover?
There is a massive tank near our house. It has big pumps and the water is pumped up. When it comes back, it is very hot. It is a favourite place for those who want to commit suicide. When we were children, we were told never to go there because 'the Devil lives there.'
I went there. I thought I would jump and meet the Devil. What's the worst that could happen? I sat all night. Then at dawn, the birds started twittering. I talked to them. I heard the hiss of the water.
I spoke to it. They said, 'Don't do it.' I told the birds, the water, 'Nobody is giving me any answers on why they can't stop doing this work.'
I thought, land can be divided, but what if I speak to the sky? Nobody can divide the sky! It is one unbroken expanse that covers the whole world.
Maybe it was my cowardice. But I did not do it. However, I left home soon after that.
How did you build the argument against it?
It was difficult, initially. How do you tell women you should not do this. If you tell them, 'your salary should go up and that is what you should fight for,' they are very happy, and ready. You tell them, 'we should demand a house to live in,' they are even happier.
But how do you tell them, 'what you have, you should give up'?
Then I developed the counterargument. Now, we don't say, 'don't clean.' I tell them my story -- how when I went to school, others looked down on me. Then, mothers start crying, relating to it and saying that it happens even today.
Then I tell them: 'You have to take your life in your hands. You stop, your children will never do this.'
What were the other counterarguments?
The thing is, it isn't that they haven't tried to give it up. They have tried many times. But people around them will tell them, 'What else can you do? Life outside is very difficult.' So they are forced into doing what they have been doing for three, four generations.
There is so much internalisation: 'What is wrong with this? What we are doing is keeping society clean. Doesn't the prime minister also clean himself? Cleaning is not bad work.'
And then there are the myths: People praise them -- safai karamcharis are actually safai mata. 'You are like my mother because she cleaned me when I was a child. So you should be satisfied and happy with your lot.'
It is hard to demolish such notions.
But then, I discovered Dr Ambedkar. He taught us that it is not our fault. It is actually a conspiracy by the bigger society. That's when I understood what had happened to us.
I realised we are not doing scavenging because we are illiterate or poor. We are doing it because of the way society is organised.
In 1990, I learnt about untouchability, caste, occupation -- I read Gandhi, Ambedkar. We went on a cycle yatra. In every village we would say: 'We didn't become scavengers, somebody made us. Somebody designed everything. We have to break the rules of the game and make new rules.'
What is your project now?
Even today, my organisation is not registered. It is called Safai Karamchari Andolan. We fought and won a case in the Supreme Court in 2014 about the deaths of safai karamcharis while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
The judgment came in 2014 and it said that those who caused the death of these people should be sent to jail and the deceased compensated by payment of Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) each.
I began documenting the deaths. As many as 1,268 people died when they were sent to clean blocked sewers. Some died inhaling methane gas. Some just drowned in the filth. It was a painful process -- collecting post-mortem reports, death documents.
Some of them were so young. You were paid Rs 5,000 by the Jal Board to do the work. If you died, there was no responsibility.
My fight now is: Technology has advanced so much; so, why can't this work be done mechanically?
Why do human beings have to do it?
Why should sewer deaths occur at all?
We took out a countrywide yatra sensitising the community about this. The Bhim Yatra culminated on Ambedkar's birthday. We said: 'The structures of unequal society will collapse and then everybody will have equal rights and self respect.'
That day will come.
IMAGE: Ragpickers collect recyclable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi. Photograph: Ahmad Masood/Reuters