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    South Asia
     Jan 26, 2005
Dalits create space for themselves
By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - To the casual visitor, Gaurav Apartments on the eastern edge of India's national capital looks like any other block of middle-class residential flats, set into a genteel neighborhood patronized by doctors, engineers and other professionals.

Traverse the rows of shiny cars and enter some of the residences in the Patpargani neighborhood, however, and it becomes apparent that the apartments represent both the hope and despair of dalits, or people at the bottom of Hinduism's rigid social hierarchy.

At the World Social Forum (WSF) in Mumbai in January 2004, the voices and protests of dalits were one of the hallmarks of the forum. The WSF gathers again this year from January 26-31 at Porto Alegre, Brazil, to give a voice to the world's poor and excluded sectors, and hear of their success stories.

Dalits, who number some 160 million out of India's billion-plus population, are subjected to all kinds of social discrimination. In rural villages, they are not allowed to draw water from community wells. They cannot enter Hindu temples. Upper-caste people have been known to withdraw their children from schools just because the midday meals are cooked by dalit women employed by the government. Tea shops in central India still keep separate tumblers and cups for use by dalits for fear of losing upper-caste patronage.

Gaurav Apartments came up 15 years ago as the realization of the dream of Ram Din Rajvanshi to carve out secure, dignified residential space for dalit families that can afford to buy a two or three-bedroom flat rather than as a "bantustan" for low-caste people.

"I never intended that we should be segregated and in fact made sure that 20% of the flats were reserved for people from higher-caste groups," said Rajvanshi, a retired government officer who commands love and respect from the people who occupy the pink sandstone-faced flats. Attracted by the lower prices and rents, upper-caste families have been steadily buying up the apartments. Today they own 50% of the 192 apartments.

But realtors despair that prices for the flats have become stagnant. "Few people would readily go and live in a dalit neighborhood," said Prakash, a property broker who remarked that he wished the dalit residents would not insist on displaying a large portrait of B R Amedkar at the entrance to the complex. Ambedkar, a Dalit, was a distinguished lawyer who was charged with drafting the Indian constitution by India's founding fathers, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

But it would seem that most prospective apartment buyers are less enlightened and put off by the portrait. "There are problems - upper-caste families here tend to keep to themselves and rarely invite dalit children into their homes, even if they may be schoolmates of their children, so segregation is still happening," explained Seema, an upper-caste housewife and resident.

According to Seema, much of the prejudice comes from upper-caste women who are happy to have cheaply acquired a flat, but then turn around and complain that they are compelled to live among chamaars, a pejorative term for low-caste people that translates as cobbler.

But Rajvanshi is undaunted. "We built these apartments to show that we [dalits] are capable of helping ourselves and indeed I and my associates took up the project as a challenge."

One confident resident of Gaurav Apartments is S Sahay, a former senior bureaucrat in the Defense Ministry. "It is true that they don't invite our children to their [upper-caste] birthday parties, but who cares? They still don't dare to say anything in front of us."

The constitution guarantees Dalits reserved jobs in government departments and public sector enterprises. In fact, many of the residents of Gaurav Apartments are beneficiaries of this policy of positive discrimination.

Now, after more than a decade of liberalization and economic restructuring in India, there are more jobs and opportunities in the private sector. But there are also more owners and managers who are opposed to government policy requiring them to extend to the dalits the same reservations and quotas.

And like Rajvanshi and Sahay, many Dalits and their organizations are willing to carry the battle for their rights into upper-caste camps and to international conferences such as the WSF.

Rajvanshi also recalled the discomfiture of the Indian government at the World Conference against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, when it tried to prevent discussion on the dalit issue by arguing that caste issues were different from racism. "Durban was a major breakthrough and we are not going to look back. We will use every forum, including the World Social Forum, to shame people who run this country into giving us our rights," Rajvanshi said.

(Inter Press Service)



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