A study of the Dalit Valmiki community living in Ahmedabad’s five slum localities Thaltej, Gota, Hatkeshwar, Naranpura Lakhudi and Sola Bridge by the Human Development and Research Centre (HDRC), Ahmedabad, points towards how the community remains the most neglected section of the city’s urban life. Excerpts:
Dalits make up 6 to 7 per cent of Gujarat’s population. If one looks back into history, one finds that the condition of Dalits, especially in villages, was extremely pathetic. In Banaskantha district, for instance, Dalits were obliged to cover their head with a turban of a particular colour, so that they could be identified by dominant castemen from a distance. Dalit bridegrooms would not be allowed to ride a horse during marriage processions, and those forming part of the procession would not be allowed to beat drums or dance to the tune of music in celebration. If this was the situation of the Dalit community, one could well imagine what type of discrimination Valmikis, the lowest rung in the Dalit hierarchy, would face. There was a time when persons from dominant castes would ensure that Dalits, especially Valmikis, did not get treatment in government-run primary health centres (PHCs). No doubt, there is a definite improvement in this situation. Yet it would be pertinent to say that, in rural areas, the rigid traditional caste behaviour remains intact even today.
No doubt, like other sections of Dalits, in the cities, especially Ahmedabad, the Valmiki community’s situation is much better than in the rural areas. In search of occupational options, many Valmikis land up in Gujarat’s cities, especially Ahmedabad. This is one reason why one finds a large number of Valmikis are living in the slums of Ahmedabad for quite some time. Here, living as migrants, they face major issues related with livelihood. They are forced to live in an extremely stifling atmosphere. While they become easy victims of larger issues of urban livelihood such as price rise, and oppression at the workplace, they additionally become victims of untouchability.
The Valmiki community is mainly aligned with the job of cleaning up all the filth of the city. Economic compulsions make more than one person in the family – husband and wife and grown up children – to work as cleaning workers. They together earn on an average Rs 700 to Rs 800 a day. While this should be sufficient for running the family, the costs they must bear for meeting their primary requirements at a time when they are deprived of basic facilities like housing, electricity and water is indeed very high. Things especially become difficult as, at several places, female Valmiki workers are paid lesser wages than their male counterparts.
Social awareness among the Valmikis is extremely low. They haven’t generally thought about the need to be empowered. A major reason for this is, while several voluntary organizations work for the empowerment of Dalits, they pay little heed to the concerns of Valmikis. Worse, Valmikis generally observe higher number of religious rites and rituals than persons from other communities. In fact, there is a tendency among them to spend huge amounts on religious rites and ceremonies. This is a major reason why there is very little saving from whatever they earning.
The situation of Valmikis becomes especially precarious because even other sections of Dalits treat them with some degree of contempt. Just as Dalits do not form part of dominant caste groups, in the same way, Valmikis are kept at bay in everyday life by other sections of Dalits. This is a major reason why Valmikis have to face considerable problems in their daily life.
A major problem nagging the Valmikis is that of housing. As they come to cities from rural areas in search of employment, they form one of the biggest groups in slums of Ahmedabad. At large number of places, they live in makeshift huts they set up on their own. However, they have not been able to register these huts in their name.
One can, in fact, see that there is glaring discrimination against Valmikis in the implementation government schemes. There is a slum area development policy, which seeks to create a livable atmosphere for slumdwellers, though the actual reality is totally different. In order to take advantage of a slum rehabilitation scheme, they must leave their present place of stay and move far away, somewhere in the outskirts, directly affecting their livelihood.
It has been found that wherever Valmiki community people live there is total absence of basic facilities. In Ahmedabad, Valmikis live by renting the space for living in huts. They have no electricity or water connection. Not only they must pay rent to live like this, there are just 15 usable toilets for about 10,000 to 15,000 huts. This has a direct impact on the health of Valmiki slumdwellers.
Another major issue facing Ahmedabad Valmikis relates to the type of jobs they must do. Whether in rural areas or urban areas, they must work as cleaning workers, a work they are obliged to do even in municipalities and municipal corporations even if they come to acquire some education.
According to the Aslali Committee report, if any Valmiki community person working in a government body has studied up to class 8th, 9th or 10th, she or he must be promoted to a higher level. However, the government has not paid any heed to the recommendation. Even those who are degree holders work as cleaning workers in Ahmedabad. There are very few Valmiki individuals who, overcoming extreme difficulties, work in jobs other than cleaning.
Valmikis face major issues related with their health. Working in the midst of filth and dust, many of them become victims of tuberculosis or asthma at a very early age. It has been found that, on an average, their life span is 50 to 55 years.
Though Valmikis aren’t victims of untouchability in the urban areas in the same way as in the rural areas, some so-called upper castemen do observe casteist attitude towards them. While there is little change in the people’s mindset, Valmikis have acquired some degree of acceptable because they are “needed” to clean up the city’s filth.
Then, one finds that there is very little importance to education among Valmikis. No doubt, for this, the dominant caste mindset of our society, too, is responsible. While Valmiki children are admitted in schools, Valmiki parents do not find it necessary to ensure that the child goes to the school regularly enough. More often than not, the child accompanies the parents when they go for cleaning job, which adversely impacts on the child’s mindset. This becomes the reason behind the child becoming the future cleaning worker.
Then, there are very few employment options available to Valmikis. Words like personal development and awareness do not exist in vocabulary; at best they are part of some elusive pedantic knowledge, thanks to poor literacy levels. Worse, because of the negative attitude by dominant castemen, Valmikis develop a mindset whereby they think that they would not be successful in getting enough customers if they kickstart a provisional store or a cycle repairing workshop.
Living in Ahmedabad city’s Lakhudi area, Ankita has completed here 12th standard, and is currently working as a receptionist in a dental clinic. Her parents and two brothers do the cleaning job. According to Ankita, while she is satisfied that she is working independently after acquiring education, those who live around her house look down upon her, as if she is a misfit in the community.
In fact, collecting dirt during the day time and being subject of scorn by dominant caste sections have become part of the daily life for Valmikis. This is one major reason why men become addicted to alcohol, and women to tobacco, which ultimately harms their health.
Yet another social evil among Valmikis is child marriage. The moment the girl enters her teen, and completes fifth or sixth standard, she is married off. During conversation with women it became evident that, if a girl is made to study more, the community people would start questioning her integrity.
A large number of Valmikis do not have basic documents such as birth certificate, address proof, ration card, and so on, as a result of which many of them are unable to get advantage of government schemes, not to talk of government jobs.