Unusual effort : Survey on Untouchability in India


Untouchability in Rural India is a book published by Sage Publications in 2006 written by Ghanshyam Shah, Harsh Mander, Sukhdeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar is reviewed bu Ashok Gopal from InfoIndia here. The Book contains first time methodical survey in 565 villages across 11 states reveals that in 73% of villages, dalits cannot enter non-dalit homes, and in 33% of villages non-dalit health workers will not visit dalit homes. Clearly, independent India’s efforts to eradicate untouchability have not substantially shaken core beliefs 
Underlying much of the heated debate on reservations is the belief that too much is being made of the discrimination suffered by dalits.In the typical urban, upper-middle class, ‘globalised’ outlook, untouchability and other related ‘evils’ are aberrations that will be swept away in India’s spectacular march towards economic progress. The urban middle class does not deny that untouchability exists. But they believe it happens ‘out there’—in a few ‘pockets’ of Bihar and other backward places. If you are an urban, upper-caste professional working in the corporate sector, you would not only have no personal experience of untouchability, most likely you would not have seen it being practised anywhere—not in your workplace, nor in your home or travels.

The large body of dalit literature, based on experiences of extreme discrimination and public and private insult, are likely to be treated as the anguished expressions of certain sensitive souls. Untouchability, in this worldview, is dying or practically dead.The media hardly deals with it, and politicians and other public figures mention it only occasionally, mostly at election time. If something is not talked about day in and day out, it doesn’t exist. This is the reality that has to be tackled by dalits and others who know that caste-based discrimination is rampant across the country, despite all the efforts made by Ambedkar and others, and all the fine laws passed in Parliament. How do you establish what is obvious to you but not to a great many other people?You produce facts, large amounts of them. But official statistics are useless, because they deal with extreme cases—usually of violence. They don’t deal with the daily injustices and insults heaped upon dalits.

You need a different kind of study. ActionAid did such a study in 2001-2002. Its findings were analysed and written by an eminent panel: Ghanshyam Shah, formerly Dr Ambedkar Chair Professor at the National Academy of Administration; Sukhdeo Thorat, University Grants Commission chairperson; Amita Baviskar, well-known sociologist who edited The Penguin Book of River Writings;  Satish Deshpande, also a sociologist, and author of Contemporary India: A Sociological View and social activist; and Harsh Mander who was with ActionAid when the study was conducted. The result of their efforts is a first-of-its- kind book, Untouchability in Rural India.At the core of the book is a survey carried out in 565 villages in 11 states: Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh (including Chhattisgarh) , Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Fieldwork for the survey was done by a large number of investigators recruited by state branches of ActionAid or NGOs and activist groups working with the organisations. The investigators were mostly high school graduates. They included dalits and non-dalits, men and women. They spoke the local language. And they were trained to use a detailed village schedule for direct and indirect observation. 

Investigators, usually working in teams of two per village, spent four to seven days in making observations that formed the basis for filling up the schedules. Group discussions, recording of case studies and interviews with key persons were other methods used to elicit information.Investigators were provided a list of observation sites, such as the village teashop, bus stop, temple and shops. They were also given a list of specific forms of untouchability.
This list was long and by itself gives an indication of the extent of untouchability practices. Among the list of sites/forms of untouchability to be observed was:

-entry into some or all parts of the house of an upper-caste person
-crossing the threshold of a temple
-walking up to the counter of a shop
-accessing water from a public source
-physical contact while giving and receiving things and money in a shop
-taking measurements for stitching
-working in the fields with non-dalits
-physical contact while receiving wages
-using umbrellas, cycles, chappals on public roads
-taking out marriage and funeral processions on public roads
-using new, clean or bright clothes
-eating with non-dalits
-wearing sunglasses, smoking in front on non-dalits
-using the services of a non-dalit carpenter 
-entering panchayat buildings
-using water facility in schools
-visiting doctors
-entering police stations
-sitting in self-help group meetings

In each of these arenas, there are nuances or variations of behaviour that could be easily missed by an upper-caste visitor, but are experienced every day by dalits. For instance, dalits are not simply barred from using a common water source in many villages. The discrimination takes on one of the following subtle and not-so-subtle forms:

-Dalits and non-dalits do not stand in the same line to fill water.
-Dalits and non-dalits use separate pulleys to draw water from a well.
-Dalits cannot dip their pots in a well or pond when a non-dalit is drawing water; dalits can draw water only when non-dalits have finished drawing water.
-Non-dalits can draw water from water sources ‘allotted’ to dalits when their own water sources have dried up, but dalits cannot use non-dalit water sources in any circumstance.
-There are separate water sources for dalits and non-dalits, and neither group can use the other’s water source even in an emergency.
-Dalits cannot take water from any source on their own; they have to request non-dalits to pour water into their pots.

Pic01 Actual Scene of untouchability

The authors of Untouchability in Rural India considered only the last two practices as ‘clear’ cases of untouchability. That is, they were rather conservative in their approach. They also took considerable pains to ensure that the selection of villages was such that different regions of a state were covered, as also different percentages of dalit population vis-à-vis the total population of a village. The authors did not set out to prove that untouchability is rampant. Hence the study can be accepted as a small but adequate picture of the practice of untouchability across rural India.

What does the picture tell us?

Here are the major findings:

-In 73% of villages, dalits cannot enter non-dalit homes.
-In 70% of villages, dalits cannot eat with non-dalits.
-In 64% of villages, dalits cannot enter common temples.
-In 53% of villages dalit women suffer ill-treatment by non-dalit women.

These figures tell us that untouchability continues to be practised commonly in the realm of inter-personal relations and in the cultural-religious sphere. Upper-caste urbanites should not be shocked by this observation. With a little reflection they will realise that they are also perpetrators or passive observers of such behaviour.  Among all castes and classes, people in urban India do not generally marry ‘below caste’. A non-dalit marrying a dalit is rare. All kinds of explanations can be put forward for this behaviour but none will help us duck the basic truth: whatever their backgrounds, Indians as a whole are uncomfortable about ‘lower castes’ entering their kitchen, bedroom or prayer room.
Where we have progressed is in the public sphere. In trains or buses we don’t care who sits next to us. (Actually we have no choice.) This progressiveness of a kind is seen in rural India as well.  According to the Untouchability in Rural India study, dalits in only 9% villages were denied access to public transport.

One would also expect discrimination to be less prevalent when dealing with the State machinery—which does not endorse untouchability- – or in the economic sphere; money, it is generally believed, recognises no bars.This study shows otherwise. In 38% of villages dalit children have to eat separately in schools. In 33% villages non-dalit health workers do not visit dalit homes. In 32% villages, dalits cannot enter police stations.
As for the power of money, which is expected to sweep away all ancient prejudices, the study shows that in 36% of villages, dalits cannot enter village shops.Untouchability in Rural India raises many questions and provides few answers. We learn that in around 43% of villages dalits are not denied access to water facilities, and in nearly 70% of villages, dalits are not required to stand in the presence of a non-dalit.
How and when did this change take place? Is it related to the percentage of dalits in a village and/or their economic clout? Is it related to the percentage of educated people among non-dalits? Is it related to proximity to an urban centre? Is it related to local need and availability of agricultural labour, or overall economic status in a village? Does it have something to do with the law and fear of punishment?
Untouchability in Rural India does not provide these answers. It does not even explore this issue. Likewise, in the case of Maharashtra, it skips an important question: do dalits who converted to Buddhism suffer less discrimination than dalits who remained within the folds of Hinduism?

To be fair, the survey underlying the book was not meant to answer such questions. Their exploration requires knowledge and competency much beyond the realm of the field investigators. What the authors have done is to prove beyond doubt that all the efforts made so far to eradicate untouchability have not substantially shaken core beliefs, though they have probably had an impact on the expression of these beliefs in public places. Clearly, it is stupid to argue that reservation is the one-shot solution to caste discrimination.

But it is equally stupid to argue, as many of our renowned armchair columnists and opinion-makers do, that only education will help dalits live with dignity, as equal citizens with equal opportunity.The health worker who won’t go to a dalit home is an educated woman. And she gives a damn whether or not the dalit family is educated.

Source: InfoIndia

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