By Kirit Rathod*
Stigmatization of Dalits in access to water remains an important issue in Gujarat’s rural areas, as in the rest of India. One of the latest examples if this came to light on July 24, 2014, when the Dalit Hak Rakshak Samiti (DHRS) of Dharisana village, situated just about 30 kilometres from Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar, was forced to submit a memorandum regarding this to Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel on how their access to safe drinking water was being hampered by members of the dominant castes. Situated in Dahegam taluka, Dharisana village has a population of 4,000 people. The Dalits, consisting of Rohits, Garobrahmins, Vankars, and Valmikis, are in minority – they form just about 300 people, or 42 households. In its representation signed by Dalit households, the DHRS said, “Despite 62 years of India’s Independence, the Dalits of Dharisana, situated very close to two major cities of Gujarat, Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad, are being deprived of basic facilities, including water.”
A spot inspection suggested that Dalits of the village get water just once in four or five days. This is happening despite the fact that a special pipeline was installed to provide water to the Dalit locality, which is situated at the fag-end of the village. There is reason to believe that this is happening because the Dalits are being deliberately discriminated against in accessing water. After all, rest of the village is able access pipelined water every day, and without any issues. The representation to the Gujarat chief minister said that urgent steps should be taken ensure that this discrimination ends, and the Dalits are provided with water in the same way as non-Dalits are provided with it.
The Census of India figures suggest that 9.95 lakh Dalit families of Gujarat, only 1.3 lakh have access to clean tapped drinking water, which means that nearly 53 per cent of Dalits do not have any access to safe drinking water. In the rural areas, the percentage of those not having access to tapped drinking water is higher, about 80, while in the urban areas it is 28. A recent research paper by Hannah Johns, researcher, international advocacy, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) said that, in India, “vast majority of Dalits depend on the goodwill of upper-caste community members for access to water from public wells”, adding, the Dalit women suffer the most, as they must “stand in separate queues near the bore well to fetch water till the non -Dalits finish fetching water.” This is true of Gujarat as well.
The researcher believes, “Struggle for water is simultaneously a struggle for power. Water being a limited and imperative resource has close relationship with the three categories such as class, caste and gender, especially when it comes to that of distribution of water. At the grass root level, this striving for power is much more than a process of increasing control over the water resource and control over the behavior of the actors involved. It has more to do with the feeling of detest towards the lower castes; in traditional Hindu setting Dalits were denied of all these facilities and were expected to work as slaves for the dominant castes.”
Water is not the only issue which bothers Dalits of rural Gujarat. The spot observation in Dharisana village suggested other forms of discrimination as well. In fact, the Dalits are unable to access any other basic social infrastructure provided to the rest of the village. For instance, the village pathway that leads to the Dalit area – starting from Divkaranbhai Patel’s residence to the Brahmani Mata Temple – has been encroached upon by non-Dalits. This makes it difficult for the Dalits to move out of the village and reach up to their residence from outside. The Dalits have long demanded that illegal encroachers should be removed, and the pathway should be cleared, so that they can freely move to and fro. Thanks to be hurdles created by these encroachers, the local authorities have refused to construct concrete roads up to the Dalit locality, despite the fact that concrete pathways have been built in rest of the village. The representation to the chief minister said, this should also be done immediately.
Further, the Dalit locality does not have any drainage and gutter facilities, something that exists in rest of the village. Nor have the authorities put up any street lights. The representation said, the authorities should immediately act and ensure that the Dalits are not discriminated against as far as these basic facilities are concerned. Then, the non-Dalits use the approaches to the Dalit locality to dump all the filth of the village. Despite repeated representations to stop this, the authorities have done next to nothing for this. There is a strong view among the Dalits of the village that legal action, including sections of anti-atrocities law, should be applied on those who deliberately carry out this type of obstructive activity.
The Dalit households have also been discriminated against by the refusal of the authorities to include many of them in the below poverty line (BPL) list, despite they claim to fall in the BPL criterion. There is a Supreme Court instruction regarding this, and criteria have been fixed. The representation said, efforts should be made to resurvey the Dalit population of the locality, and BPL or Antyodaya ration cards are issued to poor Dalits, so that they can avail of subsidized ration from the village public distribution system (PDS). Other facilities demanded in the representation include a public toilet in the Dalit area, a spot where the Dalits could wash their clothes, provision of plots to the poorer sections of Dalits so that they could build their own houses, and so on.
*Senior activist, Navsarjan Trust