India has a population of 1.1 billion people – one sixth of the planet’s human population. Of these, some 23% fall below the caste system that shapes Indian society. These are the 250 million Dalits, those designated 'scheduled castes' and 'scheduled tribes'. They are considered to be ‘outcastes’. They are the lowest of the low; the bottom of the pile. As a result, the Dalits are among the poorest and most oppressed people groups in the world.
Traditionally, your caste determines your occupation. If you are born into a particular jati or sub-caste, you are destined for a particular occupation; in fact you are restricted to that role in society. Dalits are restricted to the most menial and degrading types of work. They are the only ones who are allowed to touch dead bodies, for example, so they handle corpses and skin dead animals, which are considered to make a person unclean. One subcaste is that of the ratcatchers. It is not simply that this is their job; this is their livelihood in a very real sense, as they rely on the rats they catch as their major food source because they are so poor.
One of the most degrading occupation restricted to Dalits is that of manual scavenging. It is estimated that around 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, make their living through manual scavenging - a sanitized term used to describe the job of removing human excrement by hand from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, and then carrying it on their heads in buckets or baskets. Manual scavenging was abolished by law in 1993, but it is so deeply entrenched in society that even local authorities employ thousands of Dalits in this way.
Such employment pays little, if anything. Manual scavengers, for example, earn as little as 7p a day. The Dalits are among the poorest of the world’s poor; they are stripped of their basic humanity, denied basic human rights, and are entrenched in a system that gives them little freedom to change. Seventy percent of Dalits live below the poverty line, which results in many Dalits taking out loans for everyday items, and then finding themselves trapped in bonded labour trying to pay back their loan without any hope of ever being able to do so.
The Indian government has attempted to do something about the situation by stipulating that the civil service must have a fixed proportion of jobs reserved for Dalits. However, the odds are stacked against Dalits as so few of them have the educational qualifications that are required for these jobs. This is despite there being opportunities for Dalits to go to school. Many of them are prevented from attending because of their poverty or since, even as children, they are in bonded labour. Those who do attend find the standard of education very poor, they are not allowed to learn English, which is the key to obtaining better jobs, and often find themselves the victims of prejudice and discrimination from other pupils and even from teachers.
In 2001 Dalit leaders approached Indian Christian leaders asking for their support in the fight for freedom from oppression. Specifically they asked for help with education and advocacy – a plea to “teach our children and be a voice for the voiceless”. [Read more...]