Bezwada Wilson, born into a caste tasked with manually removing dried human waste, has spent 40 years trying to eradicate the practice and retrain workers.
When he came to fully realize exactly what his parents and older brother did for a living, and what it likely meant for his own future, Bezwada Wilson says he was so angry he contemplated suicide.
His family members, and his broader community, were manual scavengers, tasked with cleaning by hand human excrement from dry latrines at a government-run gold mine in southern India.
While his parents had tried hard to hide from their youngest child the nature of their work as long as they could — telling Mr. Bezwada they were sweepers — as a student Mr. Bezwada knew his classmates viewed him with cruel condescension. He just didn’t know the reason.
“In my growing up years, I was made to feel different from the rest in school. I was not allowed to laugh at jokes, and caste slurs were thrown at me,” Mr. Bezwada said in an interview on a recent evening in Delhi. “All I wanted to know then was why was my community different, and how could I make them equal to the others?”
By the time he was 18 or so, the young man of course knew what his community did to put food on the table, but his knowledge was still only theoretical. He wanted to experience the work for himself.
So he urged some manual scavengers to take him on the job. He watched them reach way down into a pit to scrape dried human waste from toilet floors, piling it into iron buckets and then transferring it into a trolley to be dumped on the mining township’s outskirts.