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2020 Budget: Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson slams Centre over reforms for cesspool cleaners

BENGALURU: Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson has criticised finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s statement during the Union budget that the central government would eliminate manual scavenging and also for ignoring that the work is caste-based.

While tabling the budget on Saturday, Sitharaman said, “We have identified suitable technology to eliminate manual cleaning of sewer systems and septic tanks.” She also said that new technology had been acquired to eliminate the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks and that the ministry of housing and urban affairs would ensure that local civic bodies are provided with it.

However, Wilson was not convinced. He said there was nothing new for poor and marginalised people in the FM’s speech. “She repeated what she said in last year’s Budget speech, where she spoke about robotic cleaning (of sewers). The truth is that 102 manual scavengers died in 2018 and 117 died in 2019 in India. The number of deaths has increased. What investments has the government made in mechanising the cleaning of cesspools?” he said.

He also took issue with the Union government’s flagship Swachch Bharat Mission (SBM). “The Swachch Bharat Mission has derailed the sanitation programme in India because it is limited to the construction of toilets. There should be a scientific and comprehensive solid waste management programme,” he said.

He criticised the government for holding “no discussion about the caste of the people, who for generations, have been involved in manual scavenging. Majority of them are Dalits and Adivasis. There is not a single word on them and their families.”

Wilson, who co-founded the Safai Karamchari Andolan said that the SKA had released a manifesto last year providing a blueprint to the government to liberate and rehabilitate manual scavengers and highlighted the implementation of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993.

KB Obalesh of the Safai Karmachari Kaavalu Samithi (SKKS) called Sitharaman’s statement a “showcase” statement. “Under the SBM, the Centre has constructed over 10 crores of single-pit latrines, which demand manual cleaning. How will the government convert them into sanitary latrines? The problem lies in our poor underground drainage system, which needs to be addressed for a comprehensive solution to glaring sanitation issues in the country,” said Obalesh.