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Fatehpur's Balmikis Fight For Life With Dignity And Honor

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

21 March, 2011

Chanda is a happy woman today as she has more confidence in her ability as a human being which was degraded due to her work which she was forced to do by the caste forces. In the Lalauli village of feudal Muslims and other Hindu castes, she was engaged in picking up the human excreta for nothing. Two chapatis were the things which they got in lieu of their work. But that Chapatis for the most degrading work actually took away the freedom, liberty and dignity of Chanda. Yet, when the people like Dheeraj Balmiki entered in the area with an aim to pursuade people leaving this occupation they had to face a lot of resistance. Primarily, the people were upset as what would they do in the absence of an 'alternative' and secondly and most importantly on the retaliation from local powerful community of Muslims which would feel threatened as who 'would clean' their toilets if these people leave the work.

August 13th, 2010 , under the 'People's Alliance Against Untouchability' activist in different parts of Uttar-Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh took out rallies and protest marches against mannual scavenging and called for its total abolition and complete rehabilitation of the people engaged in this work. Chanda was in the forefront of that protest despite the known fact what would happen to her if things do not materialise. Actually, the confidence of Chanda had grown after participating in a conference against untouchability in Nagpur where she was asked to speak. For the first time, she ventured out of district headquarter of Fatehpur and stayed at Nagaloka Buddhist Center in Nagpur. She realised that life was much bigger outside her confined 'work' area and those domesticated world where she was always treated as untouchable and with utter contempt. Nobody would talk to her pleasanly and with respect but here in the conference for the first time she felt that she too was a human being and could shake hands with people and eat along with them at the same dining table. And then when she spoke to me, the fire in her started, ' Sir, I am now ready to fight. Now, I am changed completely. I will not at all do this work again even if I remain hungry. Even if the entire people kill me, I am not going to do this indignified work', she empahsied. Many months later when I met her in Fatehpur, one of the greatest victory for us was when the entire village of Lalauli was forced to leave the manual scavenging. After our memerendum to officials and continuous campaigning the government officials went to the village and souught clarification. The biggest threat was coming from those people who had these latrines but the officials threatened them with dire consequences if they do not close down their toielts. People like Chanda were already advocating for the community to come out of this mindset that their ancestors did this work hence they had to follow it. Its simply blackmailing of our community, she said. Dalit Yuva Garima Manch was leading the movement in the Balmiki community for voluntary rejection of manual scavenging from with in community. ofcourse, it was also part of the 'People's Alliance against Untouchability' and campaigning to collect about one lakh signature from the State of Uttar-Pradesh to submit it to the government to rehabilitate the women from this community who leave manual scavenging with five acres of agricultural land so that they can live theirilife with dignity. Today nearly 6 villages voluntarily left the work of manual scavenging in Fatehpur and our campaign is growing says, Dheeraj. The only thing people face is 'future' and 'alternative' and we have to think about it, he quipped.

'While we all know how government function in this country and that the community can not be dependent on government. We should campaign with government and put pressure on her but at the same point of time the community must also prepare itself to leave this dirty work at their own. What we were looking was a community initiative against manual scavenging and we feel happy that this has happened in many of the villages in Fatehpur where people have voluntarily left the manual scavenging', says Praksh Balmiki. About 12 kilometer from Fatehpur is village Damapur which has a population of 1,500 people. In the five families of Balmikis 8 women were engaged in the manual scavenging who were cleaning the toilets at nearly 115 families of Muslims, Thakurs and Brahmins. Two of the families had 1/2 bigha agricultural land to cultivate. The women are now engaged as agricultural labour apart from work at the NREGA. Unfortunately, there is another grim reality of village life where even the basic facilities meant for them are not made available to them. None of the family have BPL cards to procure ration from the PDS shop. Most of them have got NREGA job card yet the payment made for the work done take three weeks to one month. Ganga Deiya has four sons and three daughters. She left manual scavenging but has no pain though life is tougher for her. Her husband make bamboo work. In the absence of resources the children could not get education. Most of them feel that if the government provide them at least two acres of land then it would be able to create a sense of ownership and dignity among them. Some of them even felt that soft loans should be provided for buffelo rearing, goat rearing and pig rearing etc. However, they also felt that starting tea shop or grocerie shop in the village is not an option as none would buy product from them.

In the village Badanpur, which is about 6 kilometer from Fatehpur town nearly 9 women volutnarily left the work. These women were engaged in manual scavenging and after the intervention of Dalit Yuva Garima Manch, felt it important to leave the work. Here too they have the crisis of livelihood and most of them want to get some training whether in sewing or tailoring or Zardosi work. They are also demanding five acres of land from the state government so that they can live their lives in dignity and with honor.

It was a difficult work but not impossible to make people think that their dignity and self respect was more important than such non payable work which degrade them virtualy and make them 'slave' of the feudal caste Hindus and upper caste Muslims who too are in large number in some of these localities where manual scavenging takes place. According to Prakash Balmiki, its easier to complaint to municipality and then get an action but that is dangerous as it would only add to the woes of the community. The Manual Scavenging Abolition Act actually justify the victimisation of the victim and hence on many ocassions whenever we made a visit, we were careful not to send these informations to the authorities, the main action would be against the people engaged. In the past few months, many women who were doing and whose names appeared in the papers faced problems as their husbands who were working in the Nagar-Palikas as Safai Karmcharis were suspended. Such campaigns are not good in the people's interest says Dheeraj Balmiki. We can not be instrumental in targetting our own people even the Nagar-Palika. We have to understand why our women whose husbands or children work in the Nagar-Palika were still engaged in the work says Dheeraj. Most of the workers these days are being appointed on 'adhoc' and contract basis. They do not have any social security or leave benefit. Many time the salaries backlog is of over 6 months which kills them virtually. Moreover, the salaries are so low and if there is a leave then you do not get the amount too, that forces the females of the family to do the business. Dheeraj says that ' We need to be careful in such work. I have been using negative thing in my work to bring people to positivity, like leave this work otherwise we will complaint or such as giving example of what a great health and mind would be there with doing this 'work'. Some time you have to speak 'the exact opposite' for the people to understand otherwise they do not understand, says Dheeraj.

The battle is bigger for the Balmiki community as Malti Balmiki who has been constantly participating in the awareness programmes. From her personal life where pressure at home to now going outside for studies, she face oppression virtually daily, yet her head is high. ' It is not that only upper caste inflict untouchability on us, we are isolated in our own communities and they practice untouchability with us who claimed to be Scheduled Castes and backward communities too'. Malti devotes her time to social action too and persuing her studies too even after the marriage where she is living in a very traditional family where going out of home for work is not considered good.

It is a fact that the Balmiki community was kept out of many developmental programmes. There may be many reasons for that includng local caste politics. Most of them are not even in the developmental agenda of the organisations. When issue of land redistribution comes, organisations are conspicuously silent and Balmikis outside its perview may be becasue a majority of them living in the urban centers yet a look at the rural areas would show how difficult is the life of those who have not got a job with municipality. Actually, municipality is the 'lifeline' of the community. It has worked well but also kept them isolated from other movements of the Dalit communities and when politics comes it become easier for 'leaders' to take sides.

Majority of them are landless and live in the desperate situation. Yet, the new youngs have refused to accept the defeat. In Fatehpur people like Babulal have started their own band. Dheeraj himself did not go to do the same work while Prakash Balmiki is still persuing higher education. A number of girls are now learning computers and sewing along with other girls of different communities including Muslims. Today, at attempt has been made in Fatehpur to provide them literature of great writers and liberators such as Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Jyoti Ba Phule, Periyar and many others like them to bring awareness and change in their lives. The change is coming. Fatehpur's youngs are now not sitting idol and they are preparing a new , world of their own.

The community is now looking forward. It does not sit and wait for something happen. As I write this Dheeraj informs me about a possible blockade by the upper caste people as they have closed the main passage of the community which link to the road. Such road blockade by the caste Hindus are open and blantant violation of human rights of the Dalits. The fact is they not only block the road but filed FIR against the people opposing it. In fact UP government will have to introduce such stringent laws that where ever the Dalits and other marginalised communities are not allowed passage by the caste Hindus or Muslims or OBC people, actions must be taken against them as they are blatant violation of human rights.

In the village Vinobapuri, with the efforts of community mobilsation ( and here we have Kanjar community people), a link road is being developed and primary school also will soon be there in the locality. Ofcourse, just four kilometer from district headquarter and with in the local municiple area this does not have electricity at the moment. One can understand what could be the future of the people. As, I move a few yards from the village towards the main road, I find a locality which is called as 'Balmiki-Ambedkar Aawas Yojna' but most of the villagers say it is Duda colony. I decide to get down and want to have a look to only find to my utter dismay that there is not a single Balmiki family who have got a house here. There are a few of them who are from Chamar community but most others hail from relatively better background. Its tragic that such colonies too which are being built in the name of Balmiki-Ambedkar Awas does not have a space for people from the community. There is a dire need to stop this victimisation and isolation of communities. A large number of houses in such colonies are empty and most of those living there claims that 'powerful' people come here and 'enjoy' in the night. This has made the women feel threatned and unsafe in the entire area. Its tragic that when I leave this place, I found two old women ( mother and daughter) from Ravidasi community who wanted us to request the government provide them house. Living in pethatic conditions, now many of the families have got notices from the authorities to depoist the money which they have not. Actually, the Dalals i.e. middlemen with local political linkages take money from the people and promise them heaven. Most of the people who have got into these places felt that the government has gifted them these houses for a token amount of money but now they are realising that they are in a trap when huge bills piles up for them.

In Lalauli and Dasauli village, the local Muslims were the culprits of forcing people into the scavenging work. It was painful when I saw even young girls of 7-8 years age in manual scavenging. Now both the villages have lef manual scavenging work. Ofcourse, we have to hard think what alternative could we provide to the people as well as how can we take our children further. That is a big challenge but as Maina who came into this work at a very young age of 8 years, is now liberaated and ready to fly. Though she does not know what to do as her parents did not have time to send her to school, even at this age of 17 years, she has dreams of future. Much of our battle is 'internal' says Malti, we can fight with outsiders, we know how to tackle but who will tell our parents and in laws to allow their girls to go to school, do work, learn professional courses. ' Our community is not that weak financially, as others might be, but still they do not want us to go out. At the young age of 15, the social pressure is so much that we have to get married.

Malti has decided that she will work and work for the community. She put Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Buddha's photograph in her home despite reluctance of her in laws who worship the 'Hindu Gods'. Chanda is raring to go to fight against injustice. Dheeraj is already fighting for the community and now initiaed 'Prerna Kendra' for community girls and boys in Fatehpur along with Babu Prasad and Prakash to bring community boys and girls into the world of computers and literature of the Dalit movent. Dheeraj rightfully says that It is time for the community youth to come and join hand with other like minded people and combinely fight for their rights, dingity and freedom as well as be part of the revolution initiated by Baba Saheb Ambedkar.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat




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