India: The Broken People

REPORTER: Ramita Navai

India may have a booming economy with a soaring stock exchange, and fast growing technology and services sector, but Unreported World reveals a much more unpleasant sector of this dynamic society.

Reporter Ramita Navai and producer Siobhan Sinnerton travel through India exposing the horrific plight of the country’s 170 million Dalits – literally, ‘the broken people’ – and previously known as ‘the untouchables’, they are at the bottom of India’s caste system and are some of the most oppressed people on Earth.

Economic growth has done little to improve the Dalits’ lot. Despite legislation, they still form 60% of all those below the poverty line in India. Now, as Unreported World reports, Dalits are starting to fight for political power in an Indian civil rights movement against segregation every bit as bad as apartheid in South Africa, and in the American South of the 1950s.

The team begin their journey with Dalits who are manual scavengers – a polite term for those whose role in life is to clean latrines by hand. It’s a practise which is officially illegal, but a million Dalits do it every day. Navai accompanies Sangita as she begins her daily job cleaning the latrines of upper caste families. She is the third generation to do this and tells Navai that she desperately wishes her children don’t suffer the same role.

Not only is it degrading, but the work can be dangerous. The team is told about a Dalit who has died after being overcome by fumes while cleaning a deep sewer. Other Dalits have dragged his body outside the municipality that hired him in protest. By law no Indian municipalities are permitted to employ manual scavengers, so the team goes to question the Chief Officer of the municipality. He denies that any scavengers are employed, despite the crowd outside who claim they are his employees.

The position of Dalits at the bottom of the caste ladder is deeply ingrained and those who step out of line are often ritually humiliated or punished with violence. In Devaliya, an activist takes the team to a refuge full of Dalit families who have fled violence and harassment from upper caste families. Inside, Rudiben tells Navai that her husband had been standing up for the rights of Dalits in their village, angering the dominant caste and resulting in a horrific attack when he was speared to death by upper caste villagers. She says that when the case went to court, the villagers threatened to kill her children, intimidated the main witness and were subsequently aquitted.

In Maharashtra, the team meets Bhayalal, whose wife, daughter and two sons were beaten to death after he complained about access to land. Eleven villagers are currently on trial for murder. The Indian Government introduced an atrocities against Dalits law to deal with caste crime 18 years ago, but its implementation has been abysmal, with a conviction rate of just 2%.

Traveling to the eastern state of Bihar, the team finds a group of very young protesters – including school children who are forced by their teachers to clean toilets rather than study when they go to school. One boy tells Navai that when he asked to use the toilet, his teacher locked him in the cubicle for six hours.

Just as black Americans did in the 1950s, educated Dalits are forming civil rights movements, challenging local governments and demanding equal access to services. As the team leaves the country, it’s clear these leaders face an uphill struggle against such an entrenched system, but the price of failure will be to condemn millions to continuing misery and degradation.

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