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In an Indian Village, Signs of the Loosening Grip of Caste
Despite Impediments, Life Visibly Improving For Dalit Communities

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."

Small Emblems of Progress

The driver of Prasad's rented sport-utility vehicle swerved through rain-filled potholes and maneuvered around goat herders and past computer training centers. Prasad was taking two American journalists on a tour of several of the villages in the study.

Chain-smoking and enthusiastically pointing out the bustling markets, he said he believes that the Dalit's increasing empowerment can be seen in one of capitalism's greatest pastimes: shopping.

Sachets of name-brand shampoos and detergents have started to appear in the markets of Dalit villages. A native son of the region, Prasad measures Dalits' economic progress in terms of their ability to acquire these brightly packaged amenities, however tiny the portions. According to his survey, less than 0.85 percent of Dalit families used shampoo in 1990. In 2007, 81 percent said they use it regularly.

Prasad said he first noticed the increasing prosperity six years ago when he returned home for a family wedding. In the past, he would be asked for cash, saris or radios. He was expected to treat for various feasts, the slaughtering of a piglet and "VIP sweets made from milk," laughed Prasad, patting his expanding waistline to attest to his weakness for desserts.

But this time, he said, the relatives didn't ask him for anything. Many had family members living in cities, and their remittances flowed back into the village. "I was in touch with the countryside, but I was surprised this change was happening so fast," said Prasad, who is considered a maverick for departing from the Dalits' habit of looking to the government to drive change.

India has the world's largest and oldest affirmative action program. Dalit intellectuals have long hoped that quotas for jobs and university places would help lift the community out of poverty. But those programs have been both controversial and corrupt. They are credited with helping create a small Dalit middle class but also criticized for perpetuating the entrenched societal structure.

Prasad's parents were illiterate, land-owning Dalits. His grandfather had worked for the British colonial government and saved enough money to put Prasad and his siblings through school, rare for Dalit families at the time. Later, as a college student, Prasad became angered by the injustices of the caste system and joined the Naxalite movement, a Marxist insurgency against India's government.

But after four years, his life took a major turn. He watched a family happily eating ice cream one afternoon, and that changed his life. "It got me thinking, and I made a quantum jump," he said. "I never developed a hatred for those who live well. Everyone wants a good life. I came to believe that it was not going to happen through the gun. If there was going to be serious conflict in this country, it would be Dalits who would suffer."

'From Horrible to Bad'

Dalit empowerment is so incremental as to be almost invisible to outsiders. Dalits still have the country's highest malnutrition rates, which are also among the highest in the world. Violence and discrimination against lower castes are common, although reports usually end up on the inside pages of India's newspapers. In a recent incident, a Dalit working in Mumbai drove a new car back to his village, where some higher-caste people pulled him out and beat him to death, telling police later that they assumed the car had been stolen. They thought a Dalit could not afford a new car.

But Prasad's survey results showed that discrimination is decreasing, at least in this village. In 1990, 88.1 percent of families questioned in Gaddopur were seated separately during public dinners organized by upper castes. Now, only 30 percent said they were asked to sit apart.

Dalit villages are less likely than others to have paved roads, reliable electricity, running water or health clinics. But where some see squalor, others see progress. In many Dalit villages, brick hovels are replacing mud huts.

"It's gone from horrible to bad. But it's like saying that you have to climb a 10,000-foot mountain and you've have climbed 1,000 feet," said Devesh Kapur, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Advanced Study of India. "Still, the fact that we have seen a change of this magnitude after hundreds and hundreds of years of this community being crushed is really amazing."

Accompanied by Prasad, Kapur recently visited one of the villages in the study and met a Dalit village elder. He asked him if things had changed since he was a boy. "He said, 'It's like the difference between the land and the sky.' "

Unfazed by Setbacks

After working for many years in construction, Ram started his own textile business, which prospered. He was able to afford a grand wedding for his son and build a spacious house.

Like many Dalit households, the family painted a mural at the entrance depicting a studious-looking man in a three-piece suit and glasses: Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, author of much of India's constitution. Ambedkar often urged Dalits to leave their villages.

With Ram's earnings, his wife, Sola Hanna, no longer had to labor in the fields for the landlord. She recently ran into her former boss. "I saw her once in the market. We didn't speak. But we shared a quiet moment," Hanna said softly. "I had a memory of her shouting at me, calling down to me in front of other neighbors to fetch things. When I realized she could no longer do that, I felt proud."

Beaming as he listened to the story, Prasad said he wanted to check out Ram's nearby pharmacy.

As Prasad perused the shelves, stocked with mouthwash, headache pills and thermometers -- items that he said Dalits could not afford in the past -- the power went out.

Undependable power, like the rutted dirt roads and lack of running water, is one of the remaining impediments to economic growth in Dalit villages. Unfazed, Prasad cheerfully continued examining bags of pricey beans, cellphone chargers and dented boxes of cornflakes. All were proof of Dalit progress, and Prasad smiled in the darkness.

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