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Bathinda: Veerpal Kaur, a 42-year-old homeless Dalit woman from Ahlupur village in Bathinda Lok Sabha constituency, is one of the more fortunate members of her community. As we visit her at her one-room home inside the Dalit community centre, she is sitting on the ground next to a gas stove. She is cooking her family’s one of the only two meals that they can afford in a day.
We say she is one of the more fortunate ones because her family of five — her husband and three children — get their two meals, while many other Dalit families in the area are forced to settle for much less. She is also lucky to have two beds for her family to sleep on. The hard ground is the only bed that many others of her caste have known.
When her kachha house became unfit for living two years ago, she and her husband Dilbagh Singh, a daily wager like the bulk of his fellow caste men, were forced to shift to a room in the community hall for Dalits.
"The government has neither provided a plot to my family or any other benefit under any scheme announced for Dalits," she said.
Veerpal was left out of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, the centrally-sponsored housing scheme, under which only 11,200 homes were built in Punjab since 2014. Perhaps she might get lucky and benefit from the one lakh residential homes that Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had promised in January for homeless Dalit families.
Now, with the Lok Sabha poll campaign set to intensify, political parties have started wooing Dalits with the same set of unfulfilled promises. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), fragmented and keen to protect its electoral position in Punjab, appointed a Dalit, Harpal Singh Cheema, as the Leader of Opposition last year.
In subsequent visits, Arvind Kejriwal has stressed the party's commitment to the Dalit cause, talking about the work the party has done for the community in Delhi and how it is promoting Dalit leaders within its ranks.
Dalits make up a third of Punjab's population and account for 4.3 percent of the Dalit population of India; Bathinda constituency has a quarter million Dalit families.
However, neither the Dalit movements brewing in neighbouring states, nor the politically-charged year of enforced bandhs and protests against amendments to the SC/ST Atrocities Act seem to have caused any ripples in this corner of Mansa district.
Social discrimination against Dalits continues in this region, despite many of them changing their religion and laws outlawing any form of caste discrimination. Dalit families have their weddings, funerals and festivals in separate community halls. The upper caste Jat Sikhs have their own gurdwaras and cremation grounds, as well.
A long, isolated fight
A visit to the town reveals that the Dalits in Bathinda have not benefited from the Punjab Village Common Lands (Regulation) Rules, 1964, where one-third of public agricultural land and cultivable common land in each village is reserved for SCs. Much of this land, which is to be auctioned to Dalit families, is being usurped by upper caste people, who employ staff from lowers castes for farming on their land for wages as low as Rs 6,000 a month, said Jagdeep Singh, a Dalit agricultural worker in Bandi.
"Dalits mostly form groups due to their economic backwardness to get the land on auction," explained Jagdeep Singh. "But higher caste people generally put up their proxies by paying some amount to poor Dalits and get the land in their names. The law has not been able to bring any positive change for Dalit families."
But even the implementation of this rule, faulty as it may be, took a long time to take effect and only after persistent local activism. Land rights is a critical issue in this agrarian state, and Dalit activism has mostly been restricted to that.
Professor Jatinder Singh of the political science department of Punjabi University in Patiala, said Dalits in Punjab have localised issues, including those of land rights and mounting farm debt, due to which a majority of them do not connect with national Dalit politics, which is restricted to raising issues that concern educated people.
Without much political direction, the Dalit voters in this constituency, which includes areas from the adjoining districts of Mansa and Muktsar, have supported the Shiromani Akali Dal, electing twice in a row the party's Harsimranjit Kaur Badal, now a junior Central minister. Bathinda has, for long, been an Akali stronghold, a party that has few backward caste members or little Dalit representation at its higher levels.
When every door is shut
It is ironic that most Dalits in Bathinda belong to the Mazhabi community, untouchables who rejected Hinduism to embrace Sikhism, only to find that the old social and economic discriminatory practices continue to haunt their new generations.
The Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee has started a campaign, with little effect so far, to eradicate casteism by asking villages to allow Dalits in gurdwaras built for upper castes.
Gurdwara priests, too, treat lower castes differently, said Harpreet Kaur (name changed) from Bhucho Kalan village. Harpreet got her daughter married two months ago and ha approached the local gurdwara priest to hold a ceremony at her home that required the holy Guru Granth Sahib to be brought there. She was asked to delay the ceremony.
"It is a common practice in villages of Bathinda," Harpreet added. "Priests are reluctant to bring the holy book to our homes for ceremonies."
Not just in social, but on the economic front, too, Dalit women are twice as vulnerable. They mostly work at the homes and farms of upper caste Jat Sikhs, while their husbands work as daily wage labourers. The fear of losing their job if they raise their voice against any exploitation has kept them from complaining openly. And legal recourse is generally not an option.
Sukhraj Singh, a Dalit leader from Mansa, recounts several cases where police were reluctant to file cases of hate crimes or under anti-discrimination laws; sometimes they outright refuse, and at times, cases are filed against the victims instead.
Mahi Pal, state finance secretary of Dehati Mazdoor Sabha, which fights for the rights of Dalits in Bathinda, said, "What can you expect in a society where there are separate cremation grounds for Dalits and upper castes?"
In the face of deep-entrenched casteism, government schemes meant to uplift Dalits have no effect. Various government schemes like pre- and post-metric scholarships for SC students, free coaching schemes, subsidised loans, etc, have had little actual impact on the ground and the lives of these people.
"The bureaucracy is responsible for delays and failures in implementing the schemes for SCs," said Mahi Pal. "Fund allotment in these schemes is not uniform. For instance, in the metric scholarship schemes, in case there are two families with five and two members each, both get the same amount of money, not according to the number of individuals in the family."
District Welfare Officer of Bathinda, Sardool Singh, admitted that there were times when there are delays in granting scholarships, saying this was mainly due to a complex procedure of sanctions between the state and Central governments.
"Sanctions at different government levels have to be taken before transferring the scholarship meant for SC students. As soon as we receive the funds, we forward it," he explained.
Incidentally, only last month, the Punjab government had asked the Centre to release the Rs 1,286 crore pending since 2016 under the post-metric scholarship scheme for SC students.
With inputs from Navdeep Ahluwalia
The author is a Punjab-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com