By Devansh Mehta
Edited by Anjini Chandra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
Due to the prevalence of liberal mindedness and egalitarianism in today’s world, it has become harder for us to discern the discrimination of people on the the basis of caste, leading a lot of us to believe that caste is a problem of the past. I visited a colony of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) consisting of sweepers and cleaners who belonged to the ‘untouchable caste’, to study whether the problem of caste in the city is alive today, or if it has been buried in history textbooks.
In orthodox Hindu tradition, society was divided into four groups – the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders) and the Shudras (‘untouchables’). The first three groups occupy the high rungs of the caste system, while the Shudras or the “untouchables” are on the periphery of the system, and only have a chance to join the system in the next life if they serve those in the caste system well in this life.
The community that I visited consisted of people from the Meghwal community, who worked as landless labourers and weavers in a village of Gujarat, before 1785. Due to their untouchable status, if their shadow fell on a person in the caste system, he had to take a bath to ‘purify’ himself. They were also not allowed to eat or drink with a person in the caste system, or visit temples.
In 1785, the entire Meghwal community, more than three thousand people, had to move out of their village. There had been a drought that year and the crops had died. While the other communities helped each other, sharing left over supplies from the previous year, no help was given to the Meghwal ‘untouchable’ community. To survive, the entire community split, and moved to different cities.
The community I visited had moved to Bombay. On arriving in Bombay, they took up any and every job that came their way. In those days, there were no drains or flushes and the British hired them to work as human scavengers. They were made to carry faeces to dumping grounds, sometimes walking over five kilometres with faeces in a basket over their heads. No other caste was willing to engage in such work, as they considered it beneath their dignity.
One of the workers, Palji ‘Bhai’ Chauhan, who is now 87 years old, told us of the discrimination he faced in the days when he worked as a human scavenger. His grandfather was the first to get the job with the BMC, and he worked alongside his father, transporting human faeces.
He recounted how they would never be allowed to go inside hotels to eat and were always given food outside. He also spoke about how they were never given glasses to drink ‘chai’ in and instead had to drink it from tin cups.
Their situation has improved slightly over the years, but not much. The community still lives in the same building the British allotted them, with very little improvement or renovation work done over the years. They are hired by the BMC as cleaners and sweepers. Although, thankful for small mercies, with the invention of drainage systems, the closest they get to faeces is while cleaning the public bathrooms.
The General Secretary of the Walpakahdi Kamgar Vashat Utkaarsh Samiti (which works towards the welfare of the communities’), Mohan Lakum said,
“The situation is improving due to modernization. With trains and buses, Brahmins have to stand next to us and there are no two ways about it.”
However, according to him and the rest of the community, discrimination still exists and has taken on a more covert form.
Daya ‘Bhai’ Solanki, the President of the association said,
“It is very difficult to obtain a certificate which states that we are from the Scheduled Caste. They ask us for a hundred different proofs and make us go running to get affidavits and documents from different courts. They do not want us to get these certificates because then we can avail of reservation and scholarship schemes meant for the Scheduled Castes. Through these schemes, if we become officers and attain a rank above them, they will have to salute us and work for us, which is unacceptable for the Brahmin government servants whose job it is to give us the Scheduled Caste certificate.”
According to the community, one of the mechanisms the government uses to deny them the caste certificate is giving their fathers a certificate stating that they were from the Venchal (weaver) community, and giving the current generation certificates saying that they belong to the Meghwal community. The officer then refuses to recognize the sons as Scheduled Caste members, pointing out the difference in the certificates of fathers and sons.
Palji Chauhan showed us a certificate dating from the time of Indira Gandhi, stating that the Meghwal community and the Venchal community were one and the same. Despite this, they have great difficulty in obtaining the benefits of schemes meant for the upliftment of communities like theirs.
According to the President of the society, Daya Solanki, the government wants to ensure that their community remain cleaners and sweepers, and do not rise up in society. As evidence, he points out that the ownership of the house they have been living in since 1800 has still not been transferred to their name. According to the Bombay Rents Act, all tenants who have been living in their house since 1945 are to be handed ownership of that house. However, the BMC has refused to hand over the house to the workers.
The situation today at the community is a very strange one. The Meghwal community has ensured that their sons have received a good education, so that they have a chance to rise high in life. However, if they choose any job other than continuing as a cleaner with the BMC, their house (which is located in central Bombay and has one of the highest real estate prices in the world), gets confiscated. This has the tragic outcome of college graduates cleaning the streets and bathrooms of Bombay today!
Mohan Lakum says, “The BMC has tied the job with the right to continue living in the house we have been living in for generations. They are forcing us to remain as cleaners when we have the potential to rise much higher. According to the Act, we are to be rightfully given the ownership of this property.”
It may be incorrect to assume that caste discrimination is the reason for an apathetic administration and a refusal by the BMC to give ownership of the houses to the workers. However, there are some very real factors preventing the rise of the lower castes.
While different scholarship schemes and reservation benefits for Scheduled Castes sound good on paper, what use are they if these communities cannot take advantage of the schemes? How can they get admission into good colleges when they cannot avail of the scholarships and reservation meant for their upliftment?
How can they join the civil services and get top government jobs if they are forced to work as cleaners, or else vacate their homes after their fathers retirement? These are all real questions at a micro level which any policy aimed at emancipation needs to address, if it is to be successful.
Devansh Mehta is in 3rd year Philosophy at St. Stephen’s College. He pursues any activity as long as it promises to be an interesting one. He also believes that we cannot write about something we don’t have experience of, and so stays away from theoretical discourse and instead writes about the experiences and problems of the people he comes across. Don’t hesitate to tell me something interesting by dropping a mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.