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Notes from… India

1 June 2006

Interview: Kathryn Ramsay, MRG Asia & Pacific Programmes Coordinator

Tourists seem to think that India’s caste system is something that belongs in the past, a curiosity akin to New Delhi’s Red Fort. In fact, the system was only officially abolished by the Indian government after Independence just 60 years ago. And the reality is that for 260 million Indians, 25 per cent of India’s population, this ‘abolished’ system still dominates every aspect of daily life.

The Dalits bear the brunt of the worst of Indian society. They are considered ‘untouchable’ and ‘unclean’ because of the jobs they are forced to do. Dalit women are doubly discriminated against, because of their caste and because of their gender, often suffering physical and sexual abuse from both ‘higher’ caste Indians and from the men of their own caste.

I went to India to meet with the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), whose office is in South Patel Nagar, one of the leafy colonies of New Delhi that the new metro proudly links to the rest of the city. The sky train is air conditioned and clean, it reminded me of Switzerland. You can catch it around the corner from the office of the NCDHR, but its shiny inside is a million miles away from the deprivation and fear in which many Dalit women in modern India still live and work.

This deprivation exists on a scale that is hard to imagine, and it passes from generation to generation. For example, in a job politely known as ‘manual scavenging’, and no, it doesn’t mean looking through rubbish on tips, it means cleaning human waste from dry toilets that have to be emptied by hand, 90 per cent of workers are Dalits, and 80 per cent of these are women. In some families, three generations of women are forced to take up this work.

The toilets that they clean were banned by law in 1993 and more than 10 years later, none of them should still be operational. But according to Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an Indian NGO, the toilets are still being used, and Dalit women are still being forced to clean them.

The SKA has brought a case to the Supreme Court to try and prove that the ban is being ignored. When the court asked the government for its response, the reply came back: ‘there is no problem’ I saw the evidence that these toilets still exist – one even in a – you guessed it – court room. The SKA has now submitted photographic evidence and personal testimony gathered from across India that proves Dalit women are still having to clean these toilets, and is waiting for the court’s decision.

This is just one example, and not the worst, of how Dalit women are treated. It seems an almost insurmountable problem when the government won’t believe the evidence put before the court. But the organizations I met with are resolutely determined to fight for the rights and dignity of Dalits, to make sure that the law is implemented and that those who don’t implement it are held accountable.

This is a determination that MRG’s gender campaign aims to support in the coming months. We also hope to increase knowledge of women’s rights among Dalit NGOs, so that when they hold the government to account, they do so with an awareness of the specific problems Dalit women deal with.

Interview by Preti Taneja