I looked out of my hotel window – five, six, seven dogs ran through the street, a gentle warm January breeze tossed dozens of kites caught in a tree and cars continued to peep their horns loudly at 2am. An old man walked by eating ice cream and the lights had finally gone out on a nearby slum. Ahmedabad, India, had given me an insomniac’s welcome that was far from restful. The stiffest drink in the hotel bar, a can of Diet Coke, was not going to help me fall asleep so I sat staring at the road below, reflecting on my day.I was thinking about that cliche of Indian life – where extreme poverty and wealth live side by side.
I was thinking about that as I sat in a lovely hotel, watching scavengers sleep under plastic bags and tattered tarpaulins at the side of the road. It’s 2:30am and I’m already pondering whether breakfast is a good idea. I heard today that some of these scavengers, specifically the women, will soon get up and go through all rubbish they can find. They’ll look for bottles and rags to recycle or sell, then buy food for their families at 10am to feed them for the day. The earnings will be our equivalent of just a few pence.
It’s a hand to mouth existence that makes a zero-hours contract in the United Kingdom look like a premier league footballer’s deal.
Yes, families have hardship in the UK, but what I can see here is a brutally harsh existence, and frankly, I know it if it were me, I wouldn’t last a day doing what these women do for their families. These “untouchable” women are tough. Earlier in the day I saw one dash through rush-hour traffic with a heavy sack of rubbish balanced on her head. She must’ve been 70-years-old if she was a day. Their husbands, if they survive this life (average life expectancy 25 years) are scavengers too, living in slums or makeshift tents at the roadside. These men, with the women, also do unthinkable things to get by. They drag dead animals from streets, clean human excrement from homes, unblock sewers – with no protection against the noxious fumes and poisonous effluent they encounter. I saw a picture of this in a book given to me by the UK-based charity, the Dalit Solidarity Network, before I came to India, it made me uneasy seeing it in a book. Now here I was, seeing it for real. It falls somewhere between astonishing and sickening. With all the wealth, colour and vibrancy in India has and shares with the world it’s hard to comprehend why people have to live this way. Then you discover something equally astonishing and sickening – it’s forced upon them. The scavengers, Dalits, untouchables, human beings are forced into a life of horrendous servitude because they fall outside something known as the caste system, a socially sanctioned prejudice that has been part of India culture for 2,000 years.
It’s widely reported about the discrimination in the media. However ask a man in the street about this and there’s a denial that such prejudice exists. At least that was my experience. When I asked I was told flatly that the problem ended in the 1930s when new anti-discrimination laws came in. Dalits are the story of India no one wants to talk about.
However, my work recently has created a situation where, lately, this is all I talk about. As Head of Public Engagement at De Montfort University, Leicester, I have been working on a new programme of activity to break the cycle of poverty for 120 children aged 5-15 years with DMU Square Mile. The programme will see undergraduates from Leicester teach the children English, support their health, welfare, education and ensure they get proper food. Through a programme of continuous activity we will seek to raise aspiration beyond scavenging, dragging dead animals or unblocking sewers to allow these youngsters to be whoever they want to be. Gandhi said: “Be the change in the world you wish to see in the world.” I really hope in it’s small way, this is the start of a model for change. If you want to find out more, please email me on email@example.com or see the university’s webpages here.