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In UP's Bundelkhand, caste politics over water could see Dalit anger translate into voting behaviour on Monday

Kaithi (Hamirpur): The lanes became narrower and filthier toward Kainthi village's Harijan Basti. Harijan, a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi to refer to the untouchables or lower castes, also known as Dalits, and basti meaning a colony. The term was deemed derogatory and patronising and was replaced with Dalit — although it is not an official term and not accepted by many in and out of the community — but in villages in India, such changes mean nothing. In Bundelkhand, for example, all villages are segregated into upper cast and lower caste sections.

There's a queue outside the only tap in Kaithi's Harijan Basti. Men in towels and vests sit patiently waiting for the queue to move, for their turn at the tap. Prabhu Dayal, a 24-year-old, is waiting, too, chewing at the stem of a neem tree disinterestedly.

"Five taps were allocated in this village. But all of them went to the village. We got just one. There are around 400 people in this basti. You tell me if one one tap is enough," he says belligerently.

"One tap is obviously not enough. In the mornings, before the men and women set out for the fields, and in the afternoons when they come back, there's a huge rush at the tap. There are frequent fights too. Whatever taps are allocated, are always installed in the village. This happens every year," he adds.

"When we saw so many taps were allocated for the village, we were very hopeful that at least one more will come our way. But none came," Sanjay Kumar, a 23-year-old resident of the colony says, adding that when they complain to the village head, he says they have enough taps.

"He says one tap is enough for you people," Kumar says, "What do you want more taps for?"

Owing to the upper-caste, lower-caste divide, the villagers cannot even step into the main village for water. Not even in an emergency.

"Some time ago, one of us had gone over to fill water from a government tap near a pandit's house. They abused him and threw his utensils away saying you are a lower caste person, you cannot fill water here," Dayal says.

 In UPs Bundelkhand, caste politics over water could see Dalit anger translate into voting behaviour on Monday

Representational image. Reuters

"Even if it’s a government tap, it becomes their property and the village head is upper caste too, so he takes their side," he adds.

This non-access to development schemes affects Dalit women and children too.

"We have no facilities for pregnant women. In emergencies, the ambulance takes an hour to come. The local healthcare workers keep turning us away, go here, go there. We keep filling up forms. But nothing happens. No one is willing to explain or tell us anything," Rashor Kumar says.

The Harijan Basti in the neighbouring village of Badanpura, too, suffers from the same problem of scarcity of water and taps.

"What do you want to know? Take a look around and you will know yourself," a resident says, pointing at the mound of trash, a dried-out hand pump, and a general air of despondency. He wears the same look of despondency that hovers over these colonies in the region. "There was one tap that also doesn't have any water. Can you see any other taps here?"

When you start walking towards the so-called Harijan Bastis, the continuing oppression of the community through successive governments at the Centre hits you in the gut. The oppression and inequalities are especially stark in the villages as resources are less and among those lesser resources, the Dalits are on the receiving end of almost none. The development indicators in these villages will put the country's development indicators to shame. While it is true that the evils of caste cannot be wiped away overnight, the fact that caste is still determining allocation of development resources and schemes should shame and concern India in equal measure.

The condition of Dalits have remained the same through successive governments in India. According to reports, more than 20 percent of Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water and 48.4 percent of Dalit villages are denied access to water sources. When it comes to sanitation, only 10 percent of Dalit households have access to it as compared to 27 percent for non-Dalits. Dalits are dependent on the kindness of so-called upper caste villagers for their access to basic facilities.

"Dalit women stand in separate queues near the bore well to fetch water till the non-Dalits finish fetching water. Dalits are not entitled, nor allowed to use taps and wells located in the non-Dalit area. Dalit villages are not provided water for several days in case the Dalits show resentment to existing practices of discrimination," a 2012 report by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights had said.

In Bundelkhand, which has the highest population of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes at 30 percent, and sends four of the 80 MPs that make up the Lower House of Parliament, the inequalities are starker.

Tap water is available to only 8.6 percent of SC families and 4 percent ST families.

"The difference in the provisioning of tap water is stark reflecting how and where SC and STs live, and it becomes obvious that people belonging to non-SC and non-ST communities seem to be better provisioned in basic amenities," the Bundelkhand Human Development report had said.

Access to electricity, too, in the region is better for non SC/ST households. "In case of all three basic amenities — drinking water, electricity and toilets, SC and ST households are worse off than the average in the region, which itself is very low," the report had said. The residents of Kaithi's Harijan Basti — especially the younger generation — are angry and they are not hiding it anymore. They have had enough of being relegated to a corner. They have had enough of being pariahs.

"We want real change, not just empty promises. By change, we mean we do not want to have to beg for our rights," Dayal says.

"We are discriminated against because of our caste. Look at the condition of our village. There is a cleaner but he refuses to clean here," he adds.

Sanitation is a huge problem in Bundelkhand villages. But in these colonies, it is even more so. There are mounds of leaves, mixed with muddy water stacked in every corner, walking paths overrun with sludgy water from blocked drains; cow dung everywhere and dank smells hang heavy in the air. In every Harijan Basti in Bundelkhand, the same injustices tick away like a time bomb that might just explode at the ballots on Monday.

"All government schemes are usurped by the upper caste people. We see the leaders only during election. People come here, have tea in the main village and go away. We are surprised you actually walked into this village to talk to us," Kumar says.

This simmering discontent in a state that sends the largest number of lawmakers to the Indian Parliament might prove to be expensive for the BJP government. In 2014, the BJP's landslide win owed much to the fact that it won 71 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. It also won almost half the 84 Lok Sabha seats reserved for Dalits all across the country.

However, five years later, after a spate of violent incidents and continuing oppression and non-access to their rights, the community is cornered, but also eager to fight back. According to official estimates, more than 40,000 crimes against Scheduled Castes were reported in 2016. There were several reports of community members being beaten up or attacked by higher caste people, an Amnesty International report from 2017-18 said.

"Activists said that at least 90 Dalits employed as manual scavengers died during the year while cleaning sewers, despite the practice being prohibited. Many of those killed were illegally employed by government agencies," the report said.

If 2014 brought a ray of hope for one of India's most persecuted minority communities, by 2019, much of that hope has been dashed. "No one wants us to progress, to have a better life, to live with dignity," Dayal says, "But do they think we will always remain subjugated?"

He seems somewhat startled by his own question. It is a challenge, a warning and an epiphany that the time has come for India's downtrodden to rise.

The author is a multi-award wining independent journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets @nilanjanab

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 12:10:07 IST