A recent survey carried out by Ahmedabad-based Dalit rights group, Navsarjan Trust, has found that, despite denials from the top Gujarat officialdom, there is widespread prevalence of untouchability in public life in the rural areas in the periphery of Ahmedabad city. Prepared to mark the 144th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, which fell on October 2, 2013, the survey was carried out by volunteers of the NGO, who spread to as many as 37 villages, interviewing members of the Dalit community, the local panchayat office-bearers and the local village administrator, talati, in order to get an overall picture of the practice of untouchability, both from the angle of the victims and those who are responsible for local-level governance.
The survey – which was carried out in seven villages of Sanand taluka, six villages of Dholka taluka, three villages of Dhandhuka taluka, five villages of Viramgam taluka, five villages of Daskroi taluka, six villages of Mandal taluka, and five villages of Bavla taluka – is particularly significant against the backdrop of the Gujarat government decision to convert the whole area into a “develop” region, which would form part a booming industrial area aligning the proposed Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). It is this area where the Gujarat government has planned Dholera as a modern township, and it here that a major automobile hub and a high-class technology-drive industrial estate is being planned. While some are of the survey have already fallen prey to the proposed Dholera special investment region (SIR), there are plans for more SIRs and special economic zones in the here.
At a time when the officialdom is rushing to “develop” Ahmedabad district in a big way, the social sector is taking the back seat, with little or no effort to even overcome the age-old evil practice of untouchability, recently recognized on par with racial discrimination in a European Union resolution. The NGO volunteers decided to survey untouchability in public life to find out if Dalits are allowed entry into temples in a district which is also proposed to be developed as a modern high-profile knowledge-corridor, whether they are allowed to get hairdressing done at the barber’s shops, if Dalits are served tea in separate cuts at tea stalls, if Dalits are forced to sit separately in village panchayats and have snacks, and if there is any discrimination in accessing drinking water.
The survey found that, out of 37 villages, the Dalits of as many as 35 villages were not being allowed to enter into one or more village temples, in 21 villagers the barbers refused to entertain Dalits in their haircutting saloons forcing them to go to the a towns which may be around 10 km away for a simple hair cut, in four villages Dalits were served tea in separate cups in tea stalls, in one village there was a separate sitting arrangement for Dalits in the panchayat, in two villages discrimination was noticed while serving snacks during village panchayat meetings, and in one village there was discrimination in accessing drinking water. A report based on the survey regrets untouchability that prevails in Ahmedabad even 66 years after Independence, adding, “The untouchability practice is affecting 1,500 families in these villages.”
What was particularly appalling for the NGO volunteers was that the local village officials as well as the village panchayat leaders were quite indifferent towards the untouchability practice in their village or said it existed “as a norm.” In village Goraj of Sanand taluka, talati, the official who represents the government village said that that he “did not know for sure if the Dalits go to the temple or not.”
The talati of Chekhla village of Sanand town, the NGO volunteers got a similar reply, saying he does have “any information about whether Dalits enter the temple or not”, nor is he duty bound to “part with such information”. The sarpanch of Chekhla village added, “The Dalits do not come to the temple or the barber’s shop on their own accord.” The sarpanch of Dediasan village of Viramgam taluka, believed that there was nothing unusual about this of discrimination as such practice “has been continuing for years in the village.”
The sarpanch of Trent village of Mandal taluka said, “If the barbers do not entertain Dalits in their shops, this is an issue which does not concern us, as barbers’ shops are personal property of shop keepers, it their choice to decide on whose hair cutting they should do.” He added, “As for discrimination, the Dalits themselves are responsible for it. They consume mutton and do all types of dirty work. We have a different and a cleaner way of living. Our habits are clean. We are vegetarians.”
When queried why is there no discrimination practiced vis-à-vis Muslims, the sarpanch said, “Well, there are certain traditions which have continued for long. It is impossible to overcome them so easily.” Referring to an incident, the sarpanch added, “During a recent festival, the entire village was called for dinner. The Dalits demanded that they should be allowed to dine sitting side by side with other communities. We refused, and the Dalis could not dine, and there the matter ended.”
The sarpanch of Kurpur village of Mandal taluka said, “It is not my responsibility to see if barbers do hair cutting for the Dalits in the village. The government does not pay me to do the job. If the government comes up with a resolution to ensure that the barbers carry out Dalits’ hair cutting, we will take a decision about this after calling a gram sabha. You need not tell us what we should do. You must remember, there are certain traditions which have been continuing in the village for years, and they cannot be change.”
In Mota Gauriya village of Mandal taluka, the volunteers found that the barbers do entertain Dalits, but secretively, in a way that others do not see they are having hair cutting. As for entry into the village temple, the sarpanch said, “There are separate temples for Dalits and for other castes… There is no discrimination otherwise.”