Bezwada Wilson is an Indian activist who is known for being one of the founders and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a human rights organization campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging and employment of manual scavengers in India.
Bezwada Wilson was born in 1966 (age 54 years; as of 2020) in the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), Kolar, Karnataka. He studied at a scavengers’ school till the fourth standard and then went to an upper primary school in Andhra Pradesh. During his middle schooling, his family shifted to Hyderabad, where he also did his high schooling and intermediate schooling. During twelfth standard, he dropped out of his school and started conducting functional literacy classes every evening for the women from the Telugu-speaking families of manual scavengers. He later completed his twelfth and graduated with a degree in Political Science from Dr B. R. Ambedkar Open University, Hyderabad, and was involved in community service, especially youth programs.
Eye Colour: Black
Hair Colour: Salt & Pepper
Family & Caste
Bezwada Wilson belonged to a Dalit (Thoti) Christian family. His parents, Bezwada Rachel and Bezwada Yacob, were manual scavengers. He is the youngest of the four children of his parents; he has two brothers named Yesupadam and Mark, and a sister named Annnamma.
Bezwada started his career as an activist by first educating his family and relatives about manual scavaging. In 1986, he started reaching other scavengers and educating them. Soon, he began a letter-writing campaign to contact KGF authorities, the ministers of Karnataka, the Prime Minister of India, and newspapers, which remained largely unrecognized. In 1993, the ‘Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act’ was enacted by the parliament, according to which, the construction of dry latrines was banned and practice of manual scavenging was outlawed. Despite the ban, the practice of manual scavenging continues across India. Later, Bezwada took photographs of dry latrines and manual scavenging in KGF and sent it to the then managing director of Bharat Gold Mines Limited (BGML) P.A.K. Shettigar, and threatened action under the Act. After that, an emergency meeting happened and dry latrines were converted to water-seal latrines and all scavengers were transferred to non-scavenging jobs. When the photographs were published in Indian newspapers in 1994, the Karnataka government had to admit about the problem of manual scavenging, which they denied earlier. Next two years saw Bezwada organizing manual scavengers in Karnataka and starting the Campaign Against Manual Scavenging (CAMS), which oversaw the conversion of dry latrines into flush toilets and rehabilitation of people into manual scavenging. Wilson then moved to Andhra Pradesh and began working with Paul Diwakar, a leading Dalit activist, and S. R. Sankaran, a retired Indian Administrative Officer, to motivate the scavengers to fight against the caste-based occupation.
Safai Karmachari Andolan
In 1993, he found Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) with S. R. Sankaran and Paul Diwakar, with an aim to eradicate the practice of manual scavenging and help those in practice to find better means of livelihood. Until 2003, SKA worked in Karnataka until Bezwada and his other team members launched the Safai Karmachari Andolan nationwide in Delhi.
In 2003, Bezwada and the SKA filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India, asking them to eradicate dry latrines and recognise manual scavenging as the violation of the fundamental rights of the people doing such work. The PIL turned into a major step when all the Indian states and central ministries were forced to address the issue of manual scavenging. In 2010, the liberation of Safai Karmacharis became an important issue during the planning of the 12th Five Year Plan of India. During this time, Bezwada met with parliamentarians, ministers and national advisory members, and submitted systematic documentation of manual scavenging across the country. In October 2010, the head of the National Advisory Council (NAC), Sonia Gandhi, wrote to the Prime Minister’s office and declared manual scavenging as a national shame and asked to address its abolition with the utmost urgency and priority. The NAC resolved to see that manual scavenging was over by 2012. The government of India formed task forces to do a new survey of the entire country, rehabilitation, amendment of the law to make it stricter and demolition of dry latrines. The Planning Commission of India also formed a sub-group on Safai Karmacharis and made Bezwaada its convenor.
On 31 December 2017, the Maharashtra police arrested Varavara Rao (activist and writer), Vernon Gonsalves (writer), Arun Ferreira (activist), Sudha Bharadwaj (activist), and Gautam Navlakha (activist), and raided the homes of several other activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), as part of their investigation into the ‘Elgar Parishad’ conclave in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune. In January 2018, Bezwada Wilson, along with other civil society members, demanded action against the Maharashtra police for launching a “vicious and mala fide attack” against human rights activists across the country.
- Elected as an Ashoka Senior Fellow for human rights in 2009
- Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016
- RamaGovinda Puraskara 2019, organised by Smt. D. Ramabai Charitable Foundation and Sri M. Gopinath Shenoy Charitable Trust at Kalamandira
- Real Hero Award by Rajdeep Sardesai from CNN-IBN in partnership Reliance Industries Limited
- He is an avid reader and mainly reads books on politics, philosophy, and women issues. He also likes to read cooking, sports, business, share market, and income tax-related material.
- His parents separated for seven years and only got back together before a year, he was born.
- According to Wilson, his mother called him a miracle baby and was determined to make him study, unlike his other siblings who never received an education.
- Just out of his school (in 1986), he was disgusted and appalled at the sight of people doing manual scavenging of human excreta from dry latrines. After he told his parents about what he saw, he was confronted with the fact that his parents were also doing the same job. It came to him as a shock as he did not know he was from a ‘Thoti’ family. Filled with agony, he contemplated suicide but somehow decided to live and make lives better for such people.
- After passing about from his school, Wilson went to seek a job at Employment Exchange Office, where he was told that because of his caste, he would be given the job of a sanitation worker. He was infuriated and decided to return to Kolar and motivate Dalit’s there to rebel against the caste-imposed occupation.
- In his fight to make the lives of manual scavengers better, his family was the first hurdle that he had to face; his parents and relatives believed that he should not focus on something that always existed, but they came around in a year as they saw his enthusiasm to eradicate manual scavenging.
- In 2016, Wilson and SKA undertook ‘Bhim Yatra,’ a journey covering 500 districts in 30 states in 125 days, initiated to address the country and the government about deaths of workers happened from hazardous fumes while working in dry latrines, sewers, and septic tanks.
- He is a follower of B. R. Ambedkar and was introduced to his (Ambedkar’s) ideas- educate, agitate and organise, while on a cycle yatra in his region.
- In July 2012, he was seen in the Indian television talk show Satyamev Jayate (Season 1), hosted by Aamir Khan. In the show, he talked about his experiences from childhood and reflected on the inhuman practice of manual scavenging.
- According to Wilson, he never faced caste-based discrimination until he moved out of his hometown. He said,
I found there was something different—say, while playing—but didn’t understand that was discrimination. Later, I realized we are not like others. We are different. People also made us feel you are lower than others. I did not understand fully and I did not want to accept that. But they did not give me an option.”
- Growing up, he did not have any planning for his career. However, he liked to read and felt that he could become a librarian so that he can work along with reading.
- In 2020, he appeared along with the actor Anup Soni in the Karamveer Special of Kaun Banega Crorepati, hosted by Amitabh Bachchan.