The National Service Scheme (NSS) chapter in the campus organized a lecture by Bezwada Wilson on the occasion of the Foundation Day of the NSS on 26th September at the IC&SR auditorium. A completely packed auditorium of NSS volunteers, institute students and faculty eagerly awaited the speaker well before the stipulated time of the lecture. Mr. Bezwada Wilson, who won the Ramon Magsaysay award in July this year for “asserting the inalienable right to a life of human dignity” along with the Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna, was no doubt an excellent choice for the Foundational Day Lecture.

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Mr Wilson, who has been working consistently for the past three decades as one of the co-founders and the national Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan to wipe out manual scavenging in India, drew mostly on personal anecdotes and first hand experiences to drive home the point of deep seated caste inequalities of the Indian society. Born into a family where his parents and elder brother took up manual scavenging as a means of livelihood, Mr Wilson has been subject to the deeply penetrated notions of caste and purity in Indian society during various stages of his life.

With the intention of sharing his experiences, rather than delivering a conventional lecture, he  interspersed humorous anecdotes in his talk. Being surprised to see the crowded hall, he compared it to the poor response that the NSS received during his college days, but was happy to note the interest that people are beginning to take in such social issues these days. Touching upon the various issues of caste, Bezwada Wilson presented an extremely clear image of the injustice that exists in India that leaves us with no option of escaping from the problem. Rather than presenting a linear history of the struggle that safai karmacharis have been engaged in, he put together many experiences, a large part of them being first hand. He recollected the various instances during his schooling, in which he was mocked as being a ‘thotti’ that continued in later stages and in his own words: “the country never allowed me to forget my own caste.”

Portraying the caste system as parallel to the patriarchal system, where people belonging to the lower castes buy into the system as much as the people belonging to the upper castes, he used the example of his own family members who attribute a person’s intelligence to the caste he/she belongs to. Mr Wilson went on to question the absence of any sort of rationality with regard to the  issues of caste. He presented caste as playing out especially during birth, marriage and death, where strictly codified rituals illustrate the division of society based on caste. Giving the example of a cow, which is worshiped by many groups as a sacred animal and is given the place of a mother, he questioned the need for the lower castes to carry away the carcass of a dead cow. He questioned the kind of demeanor with which the upper castes viewed the carcass and the people who rendered such services to them, questioning, “Where did we lose our sensitivity?”

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Also touching upon the apathy of the government for the past so many years, he provided examples of government departments employing manual scavengers, for the lack of proper toilets. The railways and the municipal corporations have employed large numbers of safai karmacharis, but have taken no measures at their own behest to ensure the safety of these workers. On a lighter note, he mentioned the dilemma which the Railways faced when they were asked to stop employing manual scavengers for cleaning the railway tracks at various stations, as they were so tuned to the idea of having people “clean their shit.” Although several temporary and half-baked measures have been adopted by the various departments subject to pressure from organizations such as the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Mr Wilson felt there was a long way to go. The talk ended with a request to every student to feel responsible to society and to contribute in every way possible towards the larger group of manual scavengers.

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