It is claimed that only change is constant. A closer look at the structure of our society, and the claim is dashed to the bin.
If only change were constant, the harassment these people face everyday would have changed for better.
I wrote this article while working with AIESEC on their project CASTAWAY. Our efforts were to bring to light the plight of the outcasts, Dalits, in a city like Delhi where modernisation is at its helm. This is an account of one among those harrowing thousand conversations we had with these people.
“I went to a hotel in Delhi, to have a cup of tea. The manager was aware of the fact that I belong to the Dalit community. When the tea was served to me, it came in a kulhad. Right in front of my eyes there were other people, considered to be from the ‘general’ category, drinking away to glory their tea, served in respectable usual glass cups. The rage that enveloped me is inexplicable. I broke my kulhadand vented my insult on the waiter and the manager. Cut my veins and see if the blood that flows in my body is any different from that which runs in the body of ‘generals’. The discrimination we face each and every day of life is inhumane. ”
This is the story of a Dalit, Saurabh, who left his village in 1970 and migrated to Delhi to live and earn a decent, respectable life. He works as a sweeper in MCD, in Karol Bagh, after working as a manual scavenger for a long time. The team of Casteaway revealed many a shocking, yet highly common discriminations and atrocities still being committed upon the unfortunate caste of Dalit, in a supposedly independent, secular and non-communist India.
Saurabh gets paid around 20,000 bucks a month, but, like he says, even a lakh of rupees are worthless for him, unless the people and the society give him respect and behave like humans should. He says, “Whomsoever may be walking on the road, if I am passing through, or for that matter any Dalit is passing through, we cannot walk by without being showered upon a garland of abuses and casteist taunts. The shopkeepers, the passerby, everyone feels it’s their birthright to torment Dalits, because we have been born Dalits and they not. ”
The discrimination is not just vocal. Dalits are not allowed to drink water from public wells, in spite of availability of all facilities to pull water. They may die of thirst, no one gives a wink, but neither can they themselves pull out water, nor will someone else do it for them. The entire humanity dies when the person in question, is, a DALIT.
The job of manual scavenging is, in reality, the toughest and a highly unsafe task. It’s natural for the employers of such jobs to employ Dalits to do such filthy and dirty tasks, since the Dalits are considered to be born for this. Not even one non-Dalit would one find in the job of manual scavenging. Also, Dalit scavengers are rarely able to take up another occupation due to discrimination related to their caste and occupational status, and are thus forced to remain scavengers.
These people are expected to clean all the dry latrines, not given any kind of physical protection like gloves or suits or shoes. They pick and clean the waste with their bare hands. The government has allotted all the safety equipment needed for the job, but everything is kept locked and bolted inside impregnable cupboards, for the officials to gaze at them doing nothing in their offices. The workers work in their own clothes; they haven’t been given any uniform by the officials. “I have been working since past 15 years. Till date I haven’t seen the face of the uniform we are supposed to wear to work. ”, says Saurabh, who has lost all hopes of any betterment now. 95% of the workers catch deadly diseases, relating to respiration, senses and critical backaches. But like this old man says, there is no one to listen their voice brimming with pain.
His son, Sanjay, is a bright young man, an aspiring finance analyst, now pursuing Masters in Social Work. “I wanted to make my career in finance. But seeing the plight of the people of my community, I couldn’t turn a blind eye to their woes. I have therefore decided to work for their upliftment. ”, tells Sanjay to the Casteaway team. He seconds his father on the discrimination and untouchability issues. He, in a grave tone, explains the difference between the way these were being practised before, and the way these exist now.
“There has been no change in the constricted mentality of the people. The only difference now is, the discrimination is implied. Earlier it was explicit. Now, maybe because its roots in our society are so strong, it appears embedded in the very framework of the functioning of the society. ”
His father takes over again. And this time what he reveals is more shocking than any of these incidents. “Our village is situated near Vrindavan/ Mathura; land where god Himself took birth. You would think it to be a safe and healthy place for everyone, wouldn’t you? We Dalits, are not even worthy of our shadows there. Who says that? The very pandit who has resigned the worldly pleasures to serve the mankind as the messenger of the Almighty. They condemn even our shadows if they fall on these ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’ people. Did some private builder take a contract to build our community? If this kind of treatment is served in a place that’s considered the epitome of holism, hopes to lead a harassment free life anywhere else are in vain.”
He vows he is not lying. He has never lied in his entire life, he pledges.
We do not doubt him.
Congress or BJP, it makes no difference to these people. It’s almost like they have resigned to the fate their caste brings them. They say being Dalit is a crime, and being a Dalit woman, is a curse. The torture these women bear at the hands of the officials above them at the place they work is barbaric. They are toys for their boss. Sexual harassment is something which has become a part and parcel of their daily lives. And if she’s the lone bread earner in her family, it gives all the more advantage to the officers to exploit her the way they want, because they know her dire need for money.
A worker living in the community, requesting to be kept anonymous, says he himself feels ashamed describing the condition of women there. Also, he fears the revelation of his identity will cost him his job, which has been made permanent after a lot of struggle and sweat.
What came next was something nobody was prepared to see. The people were complaining about the quality of water supply in the area. One would think the water to be muddy at the most. What the residents produced as a sample was a bottle of drinking water, with the colour same as that of coke. Pitch black. For a second, even we got confused whether it’s water or Pepsi. But it was water, that too drinking water, on display.
Sanjay remarks in exasperation, “I challenge the MLA, or any officer for that matter, to take just one sip of this water coming from gutters and I promise I’ll drink the same for the rest of my life!” , his eyes revealing transparent fury.
The logo of the Commonwealth Games is ‘Humanity, Equality, Destiny’, all terms that the Indian Government fails to live up to for as long as caste discrimination, including manual scavenging, continues to be practised in the country. But, Sanjay tells sadly, the problem exists within the community too. The Dalits themselves practise casteism, among their own people.
Unless and until the entire Dalit community integrates and unites, they won’t be in a position to fight. Maybe then they could elect their own leader too. Until then, like the old man here, Sanjay’s father, says, “ There is no one to listen to our story. Being poor, and being a Dalit poor, is your involuntary license to sufferings, tortures, and a lifeless life. ”
This incident happened a couple of years back, and the article was initially created at that time itself. Maybe the conditions have improved since then, but the crux of the matter remains the same.