NEW DELHI: It took the trustees of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award almost a fortnight to get in touch with Bezwada Wilson to tell him that he has been selected to receive the award.
The 50-year-old national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, which works to eradicate manual scavenging, has been selected along with another Indian, TM Krishna.
“They were trying to speak to me, but often there is a problem getting through on the phone,” said Mr Wilson, smiling for the cameras and responding to the congratulatory messages that flooded his office all through Wednesday.
His award, he said, was recognition of the efforts of the most poor and marginalised women, who have suffered the accident of birth and caste, but were soldiering on to break the shackles of manual scavenging.
The award brought back memories of his childhood – the “very difficult day” he faced when he came to know that he was an “untouchable”.
“You feel the earth under you is gone. You have two options – to compromise and go on or to fight back,” Mr Wilson said.
He decided to fight. Three decades on, he is still fighting against the inhuman practice of manual scavenging that has been banned by the government, but continues in practice.
What fueled his fight was his first hand experiences of seeing family and friends jump into pits to clean human waste, which had shaped his earliest memories. And it was his determination to stop this that gradually started making a difference.
“When we started in the gold mines of Kolar in Karnataka, within few years, they demolished all the toilets and the discussion went in Parliament and the ’93 act came,” he said.
From the casteist slur he faced in school as a son of manual scavengers, Mr Wilson channeled his anger to pursue a bigger goal, making it his life’s mission to put an end to manual scavenging in India, helping lakhs of women leave scavenging.
He will receive the award in Manila on August 31.