Through interacting with a number of adopted friends over the years, it is clear that many of us are involved in social work or have social justice passions and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence. I think that for some of us what we experienced growing up, feeling “different,” and not “fitting in” gave us a real insight into those in our society who suffer in the same manner and are in pain. I know I feel that way.
I feel a special bond or understanding with people who maybe are not the popular ones, or those that everyone alienates or makes fun of. I know their feelings of rejection and of worthlessness.
I would never compare my treatment as an adoptee, to the systematic discrimination of the Dalit people, but in a very, very small way, I understand Dalit’s alienation.
With that mindset, I decided to come back to India and work with the Dalit people. Obviously my adoption here and my love of India was also a big part of that decision. But as I planned my return trip for years, I always had in mind working with the local community and one which was discriminated against. So when I had a chance to work with the Dalit population here in India, I jumped at the opportunity.
The plight of the Dalits and other sub-castes in India remains an ugly stain on the world’s largest democracy. Lost amid the glitter of a booming India, millions of Dalits are marginalized and alienated from society and effectively cut off from the burgeoning development of the nation. They represent the poorest sector of India’s population, and suffer from a lack of education. In addition to the lack of sustainable livelihood opportunities, they remain under the yoke of the caste system and its specter of untouchability.
As most of you know, I’m interning for an NGO in South Delhi called Dalit Foundation. First of all, luckily for me, all my office work is in English. When I come across Hindi or another language, I use my colleagues for help in translation.
People ask me what I do on a daily basis here at Dalit Foundation. It’s a mixture of a bunch of different projects. Because I work at a very small NGO, there are only four full-time staff, and one other intern named Adam. Money is always an issue. That being the case, I spend much of my week, when not in the field or in workshops, developing proposals and writing grant applications for funding from both Indian and international foundations.
I’ve also been working on a best practices framework to share with NGO’s in Europe that work with the Roma (gypsy) people, detailing how DF works to tackle Dalit alienation, discrimination, and empowerment issues. I’m looking at the idea of conflict transformation through Dalit awareness and knowledge of Indian human rights laws, based on India’s constitution and how European NGO’s can do the same. Eventually DF will submit a grant proposal for funding for this type of initiative, but for now I’m just laying the groundwork for the eventual collaboration.
I’m compiling a list of the biggest companies in India who have robust and active Corporate Social Responsibility arms, and writing exploratory letters about partnerships with them. So far Tata Capital’s CSR foundation, one of India’s largest companies has responded positively to our overtures. We’ve hosted some of their staff at my office and DF has gone to theirs in downtown Delhi. They are interested in partnering with us in some form, later this year.
Our field partners submit reports on a frequent basis and since English is not their native language, I edit them. I also do this with minutes from our workshops. Myself and the other intern here created templates and organized systems to streamline the reporting process and make them easier to read and access by our donors. I’ve been helping plan the workshops which Dalits attend. Adam and I developed exercises where we evaluated Dalit leadership and graded their ability to work in a team.
I’m helping write our Annual Report and quarterly newsletters, which are sent to our partners and donors all over India and the world. I conduct interviews in person, or via the phone, using a translator to speak with extraordinary Dalit leaders who DF believes are going above and beyond in their communities. Usually I’m just trying to find out where they came from, what event or change motivated their interest in empowering the Dalit community and to get a sense of their accomplishments and struggles on a daily basis.
One of the most memorable women I interviewed has nine children, a house that has been nearly destroyed by dominant caste villagers because of her empowerment work and yet still finds the time and energy to organize mass demonstrations against Dalit atrocities, start women’s self-help groups, and teach village children about the dangers of “untouchability,” and its genesis. Talk about a busy life!
Beyond my personal interaction with Dalit activists, I read daily about caste-ism,”untouchability,” Hindu ideology, human rights reports of Indian states by think tanks and other NGOs and other publications about peace building and Dalits in India and South East Asia. I’m trying to understand the issues which are at the heart of the work which DF is doing here.
I’m also conducting my own research for my Substantial Research Paper here by looking at local peace-building efforts through the lens of human rights awareness. I’ve realized over time that caste conflict is not necessarily being transformed in relations between high caste and low-caste, but rather between sub castes.
That’s a good summation of my own work since I’ve been here. But now I’ll transition into what Dalit Foundation actually does.
The work that Dalit Foundation does here is pretty incredible stuff. They fund grassroots Dalit leaders, particularly women and their endeavors in villages. DF gives these people a small amount of money and they begin localized projects in their communities.
Last week I attended a workshop of Dalit activists from seven states in North India. For three days I listened to Dalit leaders share their lives and the reality of being a marginalized population throughout history. Their stories were inspiring and the discrimination which they face on a daily is staggering to even imagine.
But while their stories are tragic and awful, they are full of life, passionate about their work and exude a strength that is nearly visceral. I was in the presence of really tough people, who had weathered and continued to endure abominable actions of fellow human beings on a daily basis. Their resolve was inspiring. They were not going to live lives of marginalization and discrimination if they had any say. They were building a new existence for themselves and bettering their communities in the process.
DF funds these dynamic change-agents for one year at a time, and then reviews their progress and accomplishments in workshops held strategically over India. For the first day and a half, I heard each activist tell about their accomplishments, and their challenges in the past year.
If the work is judged to have been useful, successful, and they can quantify achievements, DF funds them for another year. The maximum amount of time that a Dalit professional can receive monies is three years. DF is committed to sustainable indigenous leadership, not hand-holding for an indeterminate amount of time. They believe and I agree, the long-term sustainable change can only happen from the ground. It cannot be done from afar and through merely the sending of money.
To put in perspective the kinds of work being done by these activists, here’s a little list:
•Formation of women’s empowerment groups, to teach women their rights under Indian law.
•Eradicating untouchability in specific villages
•Organizing inter-caste community meals. Traditionally Dalits and other sub-castes are not allowed to use utensils or drink from the same glass as other castes.
•Filing atrocity cases when Dalits are victims of violence. There are many laws in India about Dalit rights, but the Dalits themselves don’t know them.
•Re-enrolling children who dropped out of school to become manual laborers back into educational facilities
•Getting land pattas (deeds) for Dalits. There were literally hundreds of these cases that I heard about. *Traditionally Dalits have been denied ownership of land and nearly 60 percent of them are land-less.
•Finding job cards and creating alternative livelihoods for Dalits who were snake charmers, or manual scavengers.
That’s just a taste of all which I witnessed in Lucknow. The people are regaining their dignity and self-worth. They are realizing that the world in which they live does not have to continue that way for them. DF is creating leadership to help the Dalit and other sub-castes communities achieve their potential and re-humanizing their existence.
I believe Dalit Foundation assistance on the community level is transforming Dalit lives. Though efforts like my NGO, Dalit children are attending schools for the first time, or going back after working. They are expanding their knowledge of the world and becoming aware of how they fit into it. Dalits are being educated about “untouchability,” and that its many forms are forbidden under the law. Landless Dalits are receiving land, and with it, renewing their dignity and self-worth. The widowed and the elderly are getting money from the government provided to them by various schemes. Dalit Foundation’s work is touching nearly every facet of Dalit village life.
My work has been an eye-opening experience for me. I’m proud of the work that DF is doing here and know there are many others are working to eradicate the effects of the caste system and allow ALL Indians to prosper, not just the elite.