Manjula Pradeep and I have been on the road meeting and recording stories of rape. She is a strong dalit woman who heads Navsarjan Trust (NST), an NGO fighting for dalit rights.
We hit Kalol, a small town about 70 kilometres from Ahmedabad, the state capital, for a meeting with a group of feisty dalit women who decided that enough was enough, and started taking control – acting collectively to improve their lives. After days of listening to stories of rape, it’s rejuvenating to be in a room full of jubilant women, hearing about battles won.
Lalita, a local dalit leader, is on a high. All the women are. They’ve finally got clean water and it tastes very good indeed. They fill me in on the background of their battle. Most of their parents migrated from nearby villages to work in the textile mills on exhausting 12-hour shifts for less than minimum wages. But they mention this in passing, not as a major complaint. Most people take exploitation and low wages for granted: ‘You’re lucky to have work at all, and food on the table’ is the general attitude.
‘How do you manage with so little money’? I ask. ‘We live as joint families – my sons, husband, daughters-in-law – we all pool income. Women do piece work, sewing, embroidery, they make brooms at home. It's not great, but at least we don’t starve.’
This matter-of-fact, can-do attitude is impressive, but more or less normal among the poor in India. They live frugally, spend money only on essentials and still manage to put something away for a rainy day, their daughters’ marriages, or a bit of gold for a future wedding.
Romila, an NST worker explains: ‘Earlier, dalits and non dalits lived together. Then, as the dalit population started increasing, non dalits moved out and created separate housing societies. They passed resolutions not to give houses to dalits. The ghettoisation began, leaving clearly demarcated dalit areas.’
Dalit areas are hugely neglected in terms of infrastructure. Water and sanitation pipelines are over 50 years old, and pretty decrepit, so clean drinking water and sanitation are serious problems.
Lalita says: ‘Two years ago we heard about NST. They helped us start a women’s rights council so women now rally around whenever something has to be done. Through our council we started fighting domestic violence, in-law and other problems. But we decided we needed to deal with our daily life problems too, such as basic amenities like water, which is mainly a women’s problem.’ (Running water is for rich folks. A luxury. Poorer women fill water in large storage drums and buckets for kitchens, lavatories and bathrooms).
‘Most of us who work in factories fill water early every morning before going to work. We did a survey of 59 dalit societies, prepared a memorandum with signatures and submitted it to the civic officials. They assured us they would act, but not much happened. So on 24 June 2010, around 700 women took out a rally.’
Lalita continues: ‘We carried water in earthen pots and surrounded the chief civic officer. He was really frazzled. But what totally stunned the poor man was when we smashed our pots in front of his office. There were rivers of water flowing at his feet and all around his office. He was in panic and took action immediately. So suddenly we got clean water!’
The women also submitted complaints about the lack of roads. They showed me a video of the before and after scenario.
The lanes between the houses used to be marshlands full of filthy stagnant water. People had to place stepping stones and walk gingerly over the filthy sewage. But old people couldn’t manage the stones, so they would just wade through the stagnant slush.
Prahlad, an NST worker, proudly took us on a guided tour of the newly cemented roads. They were truly transformed: swept clean, clear of the plastic and debris.
People planted trees in front of their houses, placed chairs outside for a view of the action. Old people now sat there watching the kids playing hopscotch or spinning tops. Women were cutting vegetables or cleaning grain for the evening meal. It had become a friendly community space, a village courtyard scene.
This was not all. The third complaint regarding choked gutters was also solved. Shantaben said: ‘Before, they used to send sanitation workers down into the manholes. Now the municipality has brought pressure suction pumps to unblock the drains. It’s almost too good to be true!’
Though the state of Gujarat has prohibition, alcoholism takes its toll here. The police accept bribes to turn a blind eye to bootleggers, so women deal with it in their own way. A young woman says: ‘Because women are earning [the money], we can handle these men.’
‘How do you handle them?’ I ask, curious.
‘If a man comes home drunk, his parents and wife beat him.’
‘What do you mean beat him?’ I ask, incredulous.
They laugh. ‘When they are drunk, one hard shove is enough. My sister hit her husband with a balen [rolling pin]. That sobered him up fast enough and he had to go to hospital for stitches. All of us fight in our own way. We have to, if we want to feed our kids and keep the family together.’
Lalita has the last word. ‘Winning a few battles is a good feeling. It shows us we can do something and gives us the courage to keep going. We are not so helpless after all!’