New Delhi: Behind a desk cluttered with papers and files and under a portrait of B R Ambedkar, Bezwada Wilson, 53, national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan (sanitation workers movement or SKA) gave instructions to members of his 20-strong team, which works out of an apartment-sized office in New Delhi’s East Patel Nagar. Between phone calls and meeting people seeking his help, he barely found time to sip tea from a glass that teetered at the edge of his desk.

The son of a manual scavenger--the term used to describe about 180,000 Indians (as per Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 data), almost all Dalit, who clean excreta from dry toilets by hand--Wilson and his SKA aim to eradicate a practice that was banned by law 26 years ago but continues in practice. Without mechanisation and localised solutions for sewage treatment and modern sewer systems, Swachh Bharat is “an illusion,” Wilson told IndiaSpend in the course of an interview. Those who clean sewers, he said, have never been counted: 817 of them died over 26 years to 2019.

On October 2, 2019, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi said that "rural India and its villages have declared themselves 'open defecation-free'(ODF).” This comes five years after the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (clean India mission or SBM). Although 110 million toilets have been built, the claim that India is free of open defecation is not true, reported on the same day as the PM’s announcement.

Wilson’s father and elder brother were manual scavengers in Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka, a couple of hours’ drive east of Bengaluru. Swachh Bharat must start by rehabilitating manual scavengers--160,000 of whom are women--and not just constructing new toilets, he said.

In 2016, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award for “leading a grassroots movement to eradicate the degrading servitude of manual scavenging in India, reclaiming for the dalits the human dignity that is their natural birthright”.

Wilson explained why manual scavengers must be compensated and rehabilitated, how the SBM must look outside just building toilets and how technology can end manual scavenging. Edited excerpts:

With the Gates Foundation presenting its Goalkeepers Global Goals Award to PM Narendra Modi for improved toilet access through the SBM, to what extent do you think has SBM managed that since its launch in October 2014? How do you assess the programme?

I do not have a comment about the award to the Prime Minister by the foundation. But a new ideology is being promoted where open defecation is being looked at as a crime. I agree that open defecation is not good for various reasons, and that is the view held globally. But if you consider that 1.8 million are homeless in India according to 2011 census, and that there are still hunger deaths [India is ranked 103 in the 2018 Global Hunger Index], such a country cannot make such a declaration just for the sake of achieving Sustainable Development Goals or for [meeting targets of] any other agency. You want to declare ODF and at the same time kill citizens. This cannot be accepted.

We must condemn this [death of two Dalit children in Madhya Pradesh]. We are a democratic country and must follow certain norms and procedures to implement any scheme.

Parameswaran Iyer, secretary, department of drinking water and sanitation, told us in a 2018 interview that “the central government promotes technology that completely removes the direct engagement of a human being with human waste. The compost created by the twin-pit technology [encouraged in Swachh Bharat] is 100% safe and the pits may be emptied by anyone and everyone”. Do you agree, and does the programme work towards ending manual scavenging?

He is also aware that about 85% are not twin-pit [type of pit latrine recommended under SBM]. Even if it is a twin pit, in Indian climatic conditions, it is not going to work perfectly. And when Parameswaran Iyer entered a [twin-pit] and brought out faecal matter [in Daund, Maharashtra on May 17, 2018], it was 100% drama and he also knows it. If he wants to enter the septic tank or sewage, ask him to enter one in Delhi. The conditions are so bad that human beings cannot enter and come back.

You cannot create a laboratory and show that it is a model for the whole country. Laboratories and demonstrations are different while cleaning [pits] physically in a large country like ours is difficult work.

So, just because you [government] agreed to complete a project and to achieve that you cannot change the pattern of implementing schemes, you use whistles to prevent people from defecating in the open, or [threaten to] put people behind bars. Now we [society] have reached a stage where we are killing people. This cannot be accepted. This is problematic in any democratic society. If people are defecating outside, there seems to be a necessity. To prevent it we have to provide sanitation facilities. It may take some time, but you cannot do it in a hurry.

Although Swachh Bharat looks at construction of toilets, one of the challenges would be the cleaning of pits. Does it continue to put the burden of cleaning toilets on Dalit communities?

There is no need to say it. In India, where (the) caste system exists, caste is linked with sanitation. Everyone knows the community that will clean a septic tank or sewage. Without mechanisation for emptying pits the government is going ahead with constructing new toilets at such a pace. It is not just a burden, it will lead to more deaths in the next two or three years. It seems that we have invested our money to kill Dalits. The government must look into the issue.

The Supreme Court took a serious view recently on manual scavenging deaths, observing on September 18, 2019 that “in no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die”. The government has identified 54,130 manual scavengers in India. Your comments?

Through the survey the government has identified dry-latrine cleaners. Septic tank and sewage cleaners have never been enumerated in the country. That is yet to be done.

We have been saying for a long time what the Supreme Court has just stated. The court could have said that since the 2013 Act [Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013], the government has not done anything, and then [proceeded] to place a deadline. It could have asked the government that from tomorrow you cannot allow any human being to enter into a sewer line or septic tank. If the court places such a deadline the government will rush to achieve it. Instead the court has given a passing remark.

We do not require the Supreme Court’s sympathy, but we need a hard decision to protect life, dignity and self-respect of citizens.

There is a two-fold increase in the number of manual scavengers identified in the survey under Manual Scavenging Act 2013 and the 2018 national survey. Why do we have such disparity in documentation? What are the challenges?

In 2017 we approached the NITI Aayog stating that scavenging still continues in 100 districts. It suggested that we do the survey for the entire country. But Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said that they would like to do the survey on their own, and not through NITI Aayog. We worked with the ministry’s National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC) to identify [workers]. We gave the data and they agreed to the data shared. But many states have contradicted [the data].

This [survey] is not for the whole country but for selected districts. The rest of the districts also need to be enumerated to arrive at a final figure. We are claiming that 160,000 women carry human excreta in India. You must start Swachh Bharat from there; instead the focus is on creating new toilets. The first priority in Swachh Bharat must go to dry latrine cleaners who have been waiting for their liberty for many years. This has not happened.

The documentation is supposed to be done by the government, and a district magistrate must have a reason to suspect there is manual scavenging. The reason [for survey] is offered when we provide data on such toilets. Then the magistrate must undertake a district survey and declare the numbers identified. If names are missing, a self-declaration can be accepted. But this process has never happened in a systematic manner.

There have been 419 deaths of sanitation workers and only two arrests, according to The Wire’s database. Why is there a problem in charging the administration or those employing workers without following proper guidelines for their protection, under the appropriate legal provisions?

The government has to respond to the reasons for no arrest. In majority of the cases, the government is not taking responsibility. They say that they are not employing the workers directly. The Act says that [employing workers for] clearing, carrying, disposing human excreta in any manner by a contractor or anyone is a punishable crime.

So if it is punishable, the government should have filed a case immediately. When we put pressure, they file a case for a few incidents. But after a few days they release them. An FIR may get filed, but no chargesheet is filed. The government must respond to these issues. The reason is that there is no political will.

Safai Karmachari Andolan data say that there are 37,167 railway cleaners. We had reported that sanitation experts and various studies--including those commissioned by the railways--have pointed out that most of the new “bio-toilets” on Indian trains are ineffective and the water discharged is no better than raw sewage. Has the installation of bio-toilets made a difference considering the railways is the largest employer of manual scavengers?

The government has no clear understanding about the problems we are talking about. They want to avoid court or police cases, or they say that they are implementing the Act. But if they want to do that in its true spirit, human beings must not be cleaning excreta. In this regard the government is not moving even a single step.

The railways filed a false affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that it was not employing a single person [as a manual scavenger]. The case is still pending in the Delhi High Court. They say that they are converting 500 toilets [a year in coaches] to bio-toilets. This will take a long time given the number of coaches in the railways.

The railways has already wasted money on cemented aprons (built on platform lines to clean garbage and toilet waste), and then tried to implement a control discharge toilet system (to eliminate spillage of toilet waste), which has also failed. Crores have been invested. Now the bio-toilets are also ineffective [according to the report]. As of now, they have no solution for manual scavenging.

A private company in Kerala has developed a manhole-cleaning robot last year. The Delhi government had also planned to use the technology. How do you assess the role of such innovations and mechanisation in ending manual scavenging?

Mechanisation is possible, but it has to be initiated by the government of India, and later it can be taken to the state governments. But they do not want to do that. Here, a few private individuals or students are developing the technology. We have to welcome and appreciate them. With more than 1.3 billion people, do you think that a small group will find a solution? Caste system and mindset never allow the brain to even think about cleaning [septic tank and sewer] because we think that it is a Dalit or scheduled caste activity.

In 2018-19, 18,045 manual scavengers received one-time cash help of Rs 40,000 each under a self-employment scheme. The transfer increased 13 times to Rs 72 crore over a year from 2017-18 to 2018-19, according to a 2018 ministry of social justice and empowerment report. How beneficial are such transfers in rehabilitating manual scavengers? What are the policy changes needed?

The one-time cash assistance is not rehabilitation. It is support for manual scavengers who have left that work and are looking for another vocation. The rehabilitation [loan] is supposed to be between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 15 lakh, which the government is supposed to provide. This has not been initiated, and I can say that the government has done nothing for rehabilitation. It has only been given to over 18,000 [in 2018-19] when there are more than 54,000 identified. The one-time cash assistance is only relief.

So, what must be done for rehabilitation?

The government must give Rs 1 lakh to Rs 15 lakh to each person. We are demanding that this should not be a loan but a compensation for the community. All safai karmacharis are eligible for compensation from the government. There must be rapid mechanisation, and modernisation of sewage systems is important. Sewage treatment plants have to be developed in a decentralised manner (create localised solutions based on the local context) and private and public establishments must have a system to treat sewage water. Without all this, just constructing toilets will not make Swachh Bharat. You are creating an illusion and asking people to believe it.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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