Ashira Biswas (Class of ’20) is a MUWCI alum who proves that our young leaders can impact society when given the right platform. Ashira is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Challenge 2022 and came in second for her letter on the manual scavenging issues in India. Some moments can have an everlasting impact on us. Ashira describes the moment when her life was impacted forever and created the drive in her to take action regarding manual scavenging in India.
“It is indeed disheartening how prevalent manual scavenging is and yet how neglected it is by society.
During the scorching 46-degree Celsius in Delhi summer of 2010, I observed a manual scavenger of the railway’s department clearing piles of human excreta with his hands from the railway tracks and sewerage lines without any protective gear or equipment (PPE). My heart sank when I noticed him going to drink chai immediately; as for him, even washing up was a luxury. Until then, I had never seen such a repulsive and cruel practice degrading human dignity in any of the countries I had lived in or visited.
Following that encounter with the stark reality existing in our backyards, I started reading extensively on the issue. I learnt that manual scavenging affects millions across India, which has been lingering for centuries in its discriminatory caste-based social spheres. Efforts to legally eradicate such kind of employment have been ineffective due to systemic loopholes and societal apathy. It was distressing to learn that apart from the dehumanizing lifecycle of this occupation, several hundreds of deaths occur inside sewage manholes every year. The stories of their struggles have urged me to continue the fight for their justice.
During my first year in MUWCI in 2018-19, I flagged India’s Manual Scavenger issue as needing immediate action through my poetry “A Life Spent Underground” in the MUWCI Magazine “On the Hill”. Thereafter, I chose to work on the topic “Economic and Ethical Conditions of Manual Scavengers in the Organized Sector of Rajasthan, India” in my Extended Essay analyzing the Economic and Philosophical aspects of the issue. The Project Based Certificate (PBC) at MUWCI allowed me to conduct a field research project wherein my project partner and I visited the workplaces and homes of sewage workers in Hyderabad and interacted with relevant stakeholders such as Pune municipality. I also invited Dalit rights activist and Ramon-Magsaysay awardee Mr. Bezwada Wilson to the MUWCI campus to give a talk on this sensitive topic.
During the Covid-19 pandemic summer of 2020, my partner and I collected $2276 through a fundraiser on MUWCI GiveCampus portal to purchase PPE for the Dalit sewage cleaners. We also published an article about our year-long project on LiveWire to raise further awareness about this acute humanitarian concern.
In this regard, when I learnt about the Nobel Peace Prize Challenge 2022 during my Michaelmas term at Oxford University, I saw it as an opportunity to continue this cause by writing a letter titled “Life Down Under” on ending manual scavenging in India. It was an honour to win second place in this global competition and a privilege to have been one of the two formal Norwegian Nobel Peace Committee invitees to the prestigious Oslo Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies (Dec 9-12, 2022).”
The letter which won her second place in the Nobel Peace Prize Challenge can be read below:
Respected Hon’ble President Murmu,
We sincerely felicitate Your recent presidential electoral victory in July 2022 that pays homage to the values of India’s founding principles viz. representation and inclusion. Your identity as India’s second female President and first female Adivasi President has given marginalized communities hopes of a future sans glass ceiling limiting their potential.
As President of the largest democracy of the world, we respect your apex national position to facilitate transformative policy priorities and directions towards solving humanitarian issues in India and ensuring well-being of all your citizens. In this respect, I am writing this letter with deep concern regarding one of India’s festering issues which gravely violates human rights: viz. Manual Scavenging.
More than 58,098 deaths (an average of 159 deaths per day) from manual scavenging have been recorded across India in 2021 alone, most of which occurred from suffocating on noxious fumes inside septic tanks. According to Oxfam 2019, 99% of sewage cleaners are Dalits, who occupy the lowest status in the oppressive caste hierarchy. As manual scavenging continues, children are losing their fathers, wives are becoming widows, and India is losing innocent and hardworking citizens. Such tragedies are impacting hapless families and the small monetary compensation given to them may be seen as mere tokenism to such brazen injustices. India’s macro-economic growth is also being impeded because the true economic potential of Dalits to the national economy is being stunted.
Such high death rates mentioned above indicate that ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013’, is incapable of making much difference and there is a need to revise policies. Furthermore, section 7 of the above Act specifies that a person who has protective gear is not considered a manual scavenger, thus offering a loophole for employers to exploit. The lack of defining specificities of what entails ‘protective gear’ implies that employers can give merely a pair of gloves or boots to the worker and circumvent the spirit of the Act. We may consider strengthening the legal deterrence by prosecuting the unscrupulous employers of criminal culpable homicide under section 304 of the Indian Penal Code.
I have witnessed exploitation of Dalits sewage cleaners when I visited and stayed with them in Hyderabad in March 2020. I also learnt that even those employed by government agencies were not provided any protective gear, which not only stripped them of dignity but was also extremely hazardous. I was deeply moved by this and subsequently as a high-school student of United World College of India (UWC-India) in Pune, initiated a fundraiser that collected $2276 during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was used to purchase protective gears for the Hyderabad sewer workers.
Modern Indian society should acknowledge that the prevailing practice of cleaning human excreta exclusively by Dalits is a gross violation of human rights. Such arrangements continue to be a constant psychosocial aggression towards that community.
In the current year which marks 75 years since India’s independence, let us harness the power of all legitimate stakeholders to create a fair socioeconomic architecture based on mutual respect and understanding. We have a responsibility to ensure the right to equality, non-discrimination, security, and well-being of one another. We may acknowledge that the overt and subtle oppression of Dalits is an antediluvian form of racialism that debilitates the potential of that community to aspire for a better life. I understand that this may be a very challenging task and so I request Hon’ble President to intervene, voice concerns or potential obstacles to overcome, and provide an appropriate framework to the urgency of acting upon this humanitarian issue.
In view of the above, I request a meeting with Hon’ble President Madam Murmu to discuss concerns about this serious human rights issue and delineate a roadmap for ameliorating their extreme plight. In order to involve appropriate stakeholders in the deliberations, I propose to include a Dalit sewage worker along with Mr. Bezwada Wilson, an Indian human rights activist for Dalits, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, with whom I am in personal contact with since January 2020 when I had organized a seminar for him at UWC-India in Pune. Such a dialogue among significant stakeholders could galvanize viewpoints to discuss feasible and effective legislative and executive policies.
I am certain that with Your kind intervention Hon’ble President, along with the cooperation of various tiers of the state and central government, judiciary and civil society, we can ensure that no Dalit is ascribed or compelled to do the demeaning and life-threatening profession of cleaning human excreta.
With best regards.