In an Indian Village, Signs of the Loosening Grip of Caste

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit, said goods sold in a village market reflect the caste's progress.
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit, said goods sold in a village market reflect the caste's progress. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 31, 2008

GADDOPUR, India -- Rubbing his salt-and-pepper stubble, Lasla Ram, 60, stretched out on his wide porch overlooking a fertile knoll in this village of Dalits, the lowest caste in India's social pecking order. His children and grandchildren were gathered at his side as he told his story.

He had been born an indentured serf, he told them. Like his father and grandfather before him, he spent his youth toiling in the fields of upper-caste landlords, cleaning up cow dung and dead animals. He was paid only in millet, the same low-quality grains used to feed pigs and cows.

But 30 years ago, he recalled, he and some friends decided to throw off the shackles of the caste system. They were Dalits, formerly known as untouchables. They didn't stage a revolt. They simply sneaked onto a train headed to New Delhi, 500 miles to the west.

Since then, generations of Dalits have sought to escape the confines of caste by taking trains to India's vast, roiling cities. Today, in this village in eastern Uttar Pradesh state, a survey has found that 68 percent of families, including Ram's, have at least one member who left a landlord's farm for the factories of New Delhi or Mumbai. Although lower castes still suffer discrimination in cities, caste is more easily escaped there. Many Dalits change their last names. They also have greater access to new and better-paying jobs.

"I arrived in New Delhi an illiterate boy, but I was free," Ram said, outside the brick house he built from his earnings. In the capital, he worked as a brick maker. Later, he went to Iraq to manage construction sites. When he came home, he had enough money saved to open a textile business.

India's rapid economic expansion and urbanization since 1991 -- and the new job opportunities generated by those changes -- have loosened the grip of caste, some economists believe. Under the centuries-old system, occupation and social status are inherited at birth. Preliminary research from the first and largest nongovernment study of economic gains made by Dalits in India's strengthening economy, including a survey of 20,000 Dalit households, shows that migration to urban centers is helping one of India's most impoverished and ostracized communities break free from such constraints. The survey is being funded by the University of Pennsylvania.

"The untouchable has been touched by India's growth. Dalits are coming out from hunger and humiliation," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a popular Dalit newspaper columnist and childhood friend of Ram's.

"Capitalism is beginning to break the caste system," said Prasad, who is conducting the survey.

At the same time, some analysts say, Dalits' economic advancement has been much slower than that of higher castes. For the most part, their rise has been modest -- from landless serfs to low-paid laborers -- with many still living in tin-shack urban slums. They have yet to really share in India's new prosperity, these analysts say, and India's soaring inflation rate, bringing steep rises in the cost of food and fuel, appears to be erasing some of their meager gains.

Dalits still slog away in jobs that no one else wants. An estimated 1.3 million Dalit women, for example, work as manual scavengers, carrying away human waste from dry-pit latrines. In this status-obsessed society, some upper-caste Indians still refuse to eat food prepared by a Dalit.

But to Prasad and Ram, the migration of Dalits to the cities has led to a power shift in the countryside. Upper-caste landlords no longer have anyone to care for their plow-pulling oxen, a burden on the Dalits for centuries. Now they have to hire tractors.

"To me, this is the greatest social change India has ever witnessed in its known history," Prasad said. "The Dalit has been unchained. The answer was found in the machine."

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