Mentor who moved mountains for the manual scavenger

Bezwada Wilson | Updated on March 10, 2018

Clean cut: When SR Sankaran (left) was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005, he refused, saying he will take no award for doing something that was his duty

Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, is a Magsaysay Award winner   -  The Hindu/CV Subrahmanyam

Self-effacing to a fault, SR Sankaran taught me never to become a voiceover for the struggles of the manual scavenger

I met SR Sankaran for the first time in 1992. He had just retired as chief secretary of Tripura and moved back to Hyderabad. I was a decade into my role as a social activist in Kolar Gold Fields, wanting to do something for the community of manual scavengers, and was on the lookout for support. I accompanied civil rights activist Paul Diwakar to visit Sankaran at his home. Neither of us had met him before but we had immense respect for the work he did as Andhra Pradesh’s principal secretary of social affairs, setting bonded labourers free.

When we rang the doorbell, a petite, bespectacled person opened the door. He had his full sleeves rolled up high above his biceps. His humble demeanour told me he might be Sankaran’s assistant. It was only when he sat quietly with us that I realised this must be Sankaran himself. He was that unassuming as a person.

He was shocked that manual scavenging still existed and expressed a deep interest in lending his support to eradicate it. I told him that I didn’t have a plan in place, but laid out the issues in front of him. “The plan is unfolding right here!” came his encouraging response. He came with us to Vijayawada in 1993 and presided over the meeting at which we named our movement the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) and made him our chairperson, a title he cared little for.

His actions spoke louder than words. It was his idea to write Departmental Orders, or DO letters, to every single collector in India, making them aware of manual scavenging and asking for their intervention to break down dry latrines. DO letters written by former IAS officers to current ones have the power to demand the implementation of existing laws. He flew from Hyderabad to Delhi, asking me to bring to the airport the 600 letters we had drafted to be sent to collectors across the country. When I received him at the airport, he refused my invitation to be seated comfortably at our office to sign the letters. Stooped over two steel barricades at New Delhi’s domestic airport, he stood signing paper after paper for over an hour. He asked me to post them immediately.

I failed to understand the urgency. He called me several times, telling me not to waste time in using glue to seal the envelopes and instead just staple them. At 5 pm I called to tell him they were posted. “Wilson, you must understand, for my signature, even if a letter gets delayed by a minute, liberation for a manual scavenger will be delayed by a minute. I cannot commit that crime,” he said.

Today, sometimes my team thinks that I am mad when I breathe down their neck until they complete a task. Sankaran would say, “You said it. You do it.” If only officers in authority acted with such commitment today, India would be free from manual scavenging.

When Sankaran was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005, he refused, saying he will take no award for doing something that was his duty. He never took praise, nor thought what he did was anything extraordinary. Being simple was his natural state. When the Pay Commission was revised, he got some arrears but didn’t want any of it. He gave it away, saying it was too much for his needs.

SKA, too, was always a movement, never a registered NGO that accepted cash or donations. People can still join us at any stage and no efforts are wasted in managing money. Different organisations directly support different components of our running expenses such as office rental or employee salaries. The money is never routed through us.

While this was always our model, in the early 1990s, several NGOs stopped supporting us. I became furious that they were withdrawing support at such a crucial stage. “Some human rights NGOs these are!” I fumed to Sankaran. He got up and strolled about, looking thoughtful. “Write a letter thanking them for all these years of unconditional support to us. We must have heartfelt gratitude. We’ll find our way.” In some days they replied, saying they would continue to fund us. Sankaran made everything look simple and effortless.

Once there were journalists coming to meet Narayanamma, who did scavenging for 38 years in Anantapur. “I have to go to Anantapur because Narayanamma cannot explain her situation properly,” I said. Sankaran looked surprised. “If Narayanamma cannot explain her problem, I don’t think anybody else in the world can. You cannot be a voiceover. Don’t ever for a moment think they are powerless,” he said. That was a defining moment. When Aamir Khan recently called me to represent manual scavengers and accompany him to meet the Prime Minister, I said I would send three women who were doing scavenging instead. Till date I refuse to be a voiceover for their struggles.

It was through Sankaran that I understood the importance of Ambedkar. I used to think it was Gandhi who was the face of the upliftment of manual scavengers. But it was Sankaran who told me about Ambedkar’s Private Members’ Bill in Mumbai Presidency that abolished levying a fee on manual scavengers for refusing to clean toilets. Sankaran believed that Ambedkar’s Constitution was our greatest weapon to bring about a revolution.

Sankaran looked fragile and soft-hearted. But his conviction and will were made of iron. He never feared power. Not even in the face of death. He was fighting alongside me right till the end, even when we launched the Samajik Parivartan Yatra in 2010. He was 76 when he died in 2010. He had giddiness and his stent needed to be replaced. But he refused, saying he didn’t want money wasted for the upkeep of his body, especially when it was growing to be of little use. Today we give grand assurances, such as ‘Until death do us part’. But in times of doubt, Sankaran would say, “I’m there for you”, and stand right there, seeing me off until he became a speck.

When I went to see him one final time, I touched the coffin and said, “you were there for me right till the end.” Little did I know he would keep his word even after.

(As told to Shriya Mohan)

Published on September 01, 2017

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