Excerpt from the essay “Dalit lives”


It is morning in Karumbale, a decent living area in Madurai. Pandiamma and Kurgesan are on their way to work; they live in the village of Chakkimangalam not far from Madurai. All 2000 inhabitants are arunthatiyars, manual scavengers and garbage pickers, and they all travel to the city every day to work. Pandiamma cleans a public toilet and the area around it which is used for the same purpose twice a day. Kurgesan collects garbage from private houses. From his daily wages of ninety rupees, he pays five to the supervisor, a fat man who criss-crosses the area on his large motor bike. Kurgesan’s father was a manual scavenger, his eldest son is  a manual scavenger, and he himself has been working as a manual scavenger for some thirty years. He is the secretary of the arunthatiyar society, which functions as an underground labour union.

‘We get nothing from the boss, no gloves, no shoes. The work is bad for your health; we often have skin infections and have to breathe poisonous gasses when we clean the sewers at night. As Dalits we have no alternative. Other groups like thevars and Muslims may also start low, but after a couple of months they already have climbed to rickshaw or lorry driver. They have cash, you see. The bribes can amount to tens of thousands of rupees; we don’t have money like that.’

The Dalits never see more than the toilet and the back door of the houses of higher castes. All physical contact between the inhabitants and the scavengers is barred. If the garbage bags are not on the doorstep in the morning, Kurgesan has to shout as long and as hard as is necessary until the inhabitants send someone to bring the bags outside. In areas where Dalits live, the segregation is often extreme. In Baskaran’s Mill Colony some of the tenants built a second floor onto their tiny houses, but recently even that possibility of improvement has been forbidden. Neighbours from the higher castes living in the nearby new flats passed a regulation forbidding all construction in Mill Colony. Now the flat tenants are planning to have a wall built so that they will not have to look at the Mill Colony houses. The wall is planned straight across the front side of the gardens of Baskaran’s family and their next-door neighbours, cutting off their access to the main road. Spokesperson for the colony and a lawyer, Baskaran is firm in his protest, but the higher castes have the advantage of money and the right kind of contacts.

In the slum of Melavasal thousands of families, for a good part Dalits, are threatened with forced resettlement. Originally, Melavasal was a camp of tents and makeshift huts of immigrants from rural areas. In the 70s flats were built for government employees, among whom are many arunthatiyars and other Dalits. Then, the slum stood in the outskirts of Madurai, but in the last decades the city has grown far outside its former boundaries, and an extensive hut colony has risen around the flats. Now the flats have been declared ‘untenable’ and ‘dangerous’. Actually, they must make place for office buildings, as there is lack of space in the city centre and real estate developers are always on the alert for new plots of land. There will be no protest from the tenants because the different groups are not on speaking terms.

In the labour market the private sector effectuates the same kind of harsh restructuring. The official quotas for government jobs are worth less and less in the rapidly privatising and globalising Indian economy. The private sector is ruled by the principle of the highest bribe; nobody is obliged to employ Dalits or other discriminated groups. Twenty year-old Subramanian from Melavasal has fought hard to distance himself from manual scavenging, the ‘traditional’ job of his sub-caste. He now works as a bellboy in one of the better three-star hotels in Madurai. The contract would be a  stroke of luck for anybody without a high school diploma; for an arunthatiyar it is extraordinary. Subramanian does not earn more than a manual scavenger, but he has been able to choose his job – and that is what counts. It does not even bother him that his fellow workers, non-Dalits that is, are much better paid than he. In contact with the other employees he does not face direct discrimination, but a certain distance exists.

‘So they know that you’re an arunthatiyar?’

‘I have only told my manager. He would never talk.’

‘Why the distance, then?’

‘They feel it.’

‘There are innumerable ways to perceive someone’s descent,’ says Sudhakar David, NCDHR associate in Hyderabad. ‘It is written in the way you look at others, in the gestures you make, in the language you speak, in your name…My wife and I went to see a house. We were driving the jeep of the organisation, so the house owner thought that we were quite something [grins]. When everything was almost settled, he suddenly saw that my wife didn’t have a tilak [a red dot that Hindu women wear on their forehead – EV] and he became suspicious. Were we Hindus? he wanted to know. No, we said, Christians. That was sufficient information, because ninety percent of the Christians are Dalits. We could forget about the house.’ Finally, Sudhakar and his wife found a house in a nice area. ‘All our neighbours are Brahmins who look the other way when we come into view.’ As if to provide further confirmation to this story David points at a sign hanging on the front of a house. ‘To let for a vegetarian family,’ it says. ‘Vegetarian’ is a euphemism for Brahmin, just as ‘Christian’ is for Dalit.

(An excerpt from Leven als Dalit | Dalit lives)