A 'Broken People' in Booming India

Bechan, 45, a Dalit, saw his house burned down after he fished in a pond that allegedly belonged to a higher caste.
Bechan, 45, a Dalit, saw his house burned down after he fished in a pond that allegedly belonged to a higher caste. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 21, 2007

DALLIPUR, India -- The hip young Indians working inside this country's multinational call centers have one thing in common: Almost all hail from India's upper and middle castes, elites in this highly stratified society.

India may be booming, but not for those who occupy the lowest rung of society here. The Dalits, once known as untouchables, continue to live in grinding poverty and suffer discrimination in education, jobs and health care. For them, status and often occupation are still predetermined in the womb.

While some Indians had been hopeful that urbanization and growth would crumble ideas about caste, observers say tradition and prejudice have ultimately prevailed.

"There's talk of a modern India. But the truth is India can't truly move ahead with caste in place," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer and expert on India's caste system. "In all ways, it's worse than the Jim Crow laws were in the American South because it's completely sanctioned by religion. Despite so many reforms, the idea of untouchability is still very much a part of Indian life."

As India's economy surges, one of the country's most serious and stubborn challenges is how to combat entrenched caste prejudice. Dalits, along with other "backward" castes, make up the majority of India's 1.1 billion people, and social scientists here worry that these groups are being left behind.

The contrast between the gleaming call centers of rising India and the abject poverty that is the reality for many Dalits is all too obvious here in Dallipur, an impoverished village on the outskirts of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state.

Without electricity, paved roads or running water, the hamlet is home to landless Mushars, the lowest social stratum of Dalits, who work as shoeshiners, trash pickers, toilet cleaners and street sweepers. Those occupations are still regarded in much of India as "polluted" and not deserving of respect.

Here amid the straw and mud villages, two children died of starvation last year -- not for lack of food in the area, but as a result of prejudice.

Chandrika, a 24-year-old Dalit mother, recalled carrying her crying 2-year-old son and her weak 20-month-old daughter to a nearby health center. There, she pleaded for a card that would entitle her malnourished children to free milk.

But before the nurses could examine her children, she was mocked and shooed away by doctors, who told the young mother to go beg in the market.

"They said again and again, 'We don't want to see you Dalits here bothering us,' " said Chandrika, a thin, dark-skinned woman who wept as she recounted how her children died. "My milk had dried up from stress. There was no work for me. There was no one to hear my plight."

Local government leaders who came to investigate her children's deaths insisted that the shy mother and her fellow villagers build a raised concrete stage -- Dalits could be addressed by upper castes only from a higher platform, Chandrika and other villagers were told. The three-foot-tall dais remains here in Dallipur today, the only outcome of the investigation.


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