Stigma plagues India 'Untouchables'

By Matt McClure in Uttar Pradesh

Huddled in the shadow cast by his makeshift mud hut, Mahilal explains how three months ago he was forced to watch his daughter die in his arms.

She had been bitten by a scorpion but Mahilal couldn't afford the medicine that would have saved her life.

"I took her to the hospital, but I didn't have any money. The doctor just gave up," he tells us, in a matter-of-fact tone.

"I brought her back home and she died in the night."

Stories like Mahilal's are common in this part of Uttar Pradesh, where Dalits, or "untouchables", at the bottom of India's rigid social hierarchy are still struggling to survive, more than six decades after the caste system was outlawed at the time of India's independence from Britain.

And they are difficult to understand unless you dig beneath the bucolic surface of life in these rural villages.

In fields a stone's throw from Mahilal's home, a bumper crop is ripening. Farm workers lumber past as we speak, their faces half-hidden by the sixty kilogram bundles of wheat they’re carrying on their heads. How could poverty exist amongst such plenty, I asked.

"That wheat belongs to the upper caste people," Mahilal says, gesturing to the nearby cluster of brick homes of his neighbours.

"They own the land and we get half a dollar a day to work in their fields."

Landowners in control

The land reforms introduced in this country in the 1950s were supposed to have ensured that the Dalits here received small plots from the large fields owned by upper caste landlords.

But like many grand plans launched by India's government, implementation on the ground has proved difficult because the powerful landowners have simply refused to surrender any land.
"We're still too poor to even imagine having proper homes with plumbing," Mahilal says.
"When we need to go to the toilet, we have to have their permission to use the fields."
In another corner of this village, we find an angry meeting.

Locals seated crosslegged on a tarpaulin are berating their leader Kalawati, who convinced them that voting for the low caste Bahujan Samaj Party and its colourful and controversial Dalit leader Mayawati in the last elections would ensure that the long-delayed land reforms went ahead and that electricity would be supplied by government authorities.
Neither had happened, and Kalawati was having a tough time convincing people that it was worthwhile bothering to vote at all this time.
"The government listens to everyone but us," she tells us later, as tears stream down her face.

"Everywhere else people have land and power, but we don't. I cry whenever I look at our problems. Our life is a mess."

Wages withheld
One of the few initiatives aimed at helping landless Dalits has failed here because of corruption.

Mahilal and other village men signed up enthusiastically for work after the government passed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act a few years ago.
They worked the required 100 days, building local roads, but never got paid. The area administrator kept the money, they say.
Mahilal now finds occasional work as a manual labourer, enough for one decent meal a day for his remaining family of five.

"Sometimes there's enough for salt and oil, but not medicines," he says, glancing worriedly at his youngest daughter, who has had a persistent fever for several days.

He is hopeful that things would change for the better if the Dalit hero Mayawati would only visit his village.
"If she comes here then she will see our misery," he says.

After finishing our filming, we pack up and prepare to leave. It is always an uncomfortable moment for me. We come and listen to these terrible tales of woe, duly record them on tape and then get back in our air-conditioned truck and drive away.

On many occasions, we reach into our own wallets and press a few bills discreetly in an interview subject's hand.
This time, our producer Nilanjan Chowdhury has an inspired idea when he spots an ice cream vendor cycling past.

He offers to buy an ice cream bar for everyone in the village. Mild chaos ensues, but a lineup is soon organised and there are enough bars for everyone.

When we leave, there is a smile on every face. At least, that is, for today.



  1. The story of the Dalits is truly horrible. No group of people should be marginalized in this way for so long. At times, it is necessary simply to bypass the notorious government in order to fight against poverty and inequality. I work for an extraordinary school for Dalit children called Shanti Bhavan, founded in 1997, and we had to completely circumvent the government to accomplish our goals. You can visit our website to see how we've been tackling these problems.


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