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In the ghetto…

2 May 2009

MRG’s Media Officer, Emma Eastwood, makes a visit to rural Dalit communities in Tamil Nadu and finds that segregation is the norm under India’s caste system.

Today we visited the offices of a Dalit organisation in a busy and bustling market town in Tamil Nadu. The organisation wish to remain anonymous during India’s current tense pre-electoral period – a startling indicator of their fear of reprisals and threats which could prevent them from exercising their voting rights. As we entered the room, two women staff members greeted us by placing huge golden garlands, threaded with sweetly smelling seeds said to bring coolness, around our necks and anointed our foreheads with turmeric powder.

Suitably blessed, and although very touched by their gesture, feeling slightly awkward to be sitting in a work meeting with what amounted to a gigantic medallion around our necks, we sat down to hear about the myriad of activities this small organisation carries out in support of Dalit communities throughout northern Tamil Nadu. After hearing about the scope of their work I wondered why two of their members had even bothered coming to the training we’d just held in Chennai – they seemed to be very highly skilled at advocacy from the village council level right up to the UN Committees in Geneva.

One of their main areas of work is to promote grass root level democracy by strengthening local self-governance – in this case meaning the Panchayat Raj village councils. According to reservations (affirmative action) enacted in Indian law, 19.8% of Panchayat Raj representatives must be Dalits and 30% of them must be women. We’d heard about a female, Dalit Panchayat President in a village about an hour’s drive away who was fighting a land rights case on behalf of her community. Eager to show our support, and to see for ourselves the realities faced by rural Dalit communities, we set off towards the village.

Almost 10% of all atrocities registered against Dalits concern conflicts over land; although the Tamil Nadu government has decreed that all Dalit families should have 2 acres of land, 92% of Dalits in the village we’re visiting don’t own land. Three years ago, frustrated by their circumstances, 120 landless Dalit families, who had previously been forced to live 2 to 3 families in the same house, decided to occupy unused village common land. When they later learned that the land had illegally been sold to a real estate company by the dominant caste villagers, the Dalits filed a case before the Chennai High Court and are awaiting a judgment, as well as fighting for title to the land themselves.

Panchayat president in Tamil Nadu (left)

The Panchayat President (far left) – a bold, eloquent woman wearing a bright red and orange sari and flashing gold earrings, tells us she became the president so that she could improve conditions for her people. She seems fearless and at ease representing her community and I can easily imagine her being a fiery advocate for Dalits issues and more than a match for the dominant caste males on the village council.

Conditions in the village are miserable
Conditions in the village are miserable

Conditions in the Dalit village are wretched – no paved roads, no electricity, no school, no sewers and just one water pump for the whole community (provided by a local NGO – access to water is a thorny issue for Dalits who are often prevented from using the same water sources as dominant castes and have to use separate glasses for drinking water in many public places such as schools and workplace canteens, despite this practice being illegal under national law).

We’re given a tour, and despite the driving poverty, they proudly show us the kitchen gardens that supplement their income (most of the villagers are out harvesting dominant caste crops) filled with plump red chillies and tomatoes, their red flesh lustrous amidst the greenery.

Afterwards we meet in a shady, palm-thatched hut and explain MRG’s work in support of minorities. What these people most desire is economic and social progress for their communities – we try to make the link between development and our work in areas such as training and advocacy, media work or blogs like this…..I hope it makes sense.

Our journey takes us on to a second Dalit community through paddy fields being tilled by water buffaloes led by rake-thin men with their longis hitched up. A timeless rural scene, typical throughout the subcontinent. Our car chases a bus with school kids hanging precariously out of the door, glad to be out of class, their ink-splattered shirts signalling the end of exams and April Fool’s Day all rolled into one.

I’ve worked out the logic behind the insane driving technique – if everyone just uses their horn (or ‘sound horn please ok’ as most trucks encourage on their tailgates) to clear the road of dogs, motorcycles, goats, school kids, auto rickshaws, cows and any other obstacle that may cross their paths then a kind of organised chaos prevails and miraculously no one is hurt….

We arrive at a Dalit community on the outskirts of a small hamlet. We know we’re there because the villagers are loudly and proudly proclaiming their presence with a huge billboard of Dalit hero Dr. Ambedkar. The level of segregation is striking….they are in effect living in a ghetto of unmade roads and grass huts, with no latrines and scant electricity. Meanwhile the dominant caste villagers live 200m down the road in mud-walled or brick houses built on paved roads.

Rural Tamil children
Rural Dalit children in Tamil Nadu

We are surrounded by giggling kids. They should have been at the school 5km away but their school bus, which is provided by an NGO, broke down today. So much for India’s obligation to provide the means for every child to receive an education…I suppose the government is too busy putting a man on the moon…or building a nuclear bomb.

The issues are similar to the previous village. The Panchayat President, a tall white-haired man, tells us the community’s problems – lack of land is their chief concern and he also shows us a piece of paper which he says is the complaint he’s just filed to the Ministry of Education about the lack of not only a school bus but also a school in the village.

We say our goodbyes after taking hundreds of photos of the kids and the miserable living conditions they’re forced to live in. As we cross the invisible dividing line between the Dalit quarter and the dominant caste sector of the village, a huge silver snake slithers across the road in front of our car – a fitting metaphor for the blatant segregation typical of India’s age-old caste system, rife not only in this village, but in thousands of others just like it throughout the subcontinent.


This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.