T, on the topic of the term ‘dalit’ and what it should signify, I guess, we will continue to argue along the thoughts and facts / vision and action divide, without disagreeing that both are intertwined! From your last comment on ‘ on etymology of Dalits post‘ I am going to pick on the phrase “destitution among dalits” and ask a few questions. What proportion of ‘among’ dalit are destitute? Were they always destitute? Are only dalits destitute?
Without going into what all the biggies in poor economics are saying/said on this, can we dig into our own childhood memories and our own perceptions and experiences as adults to look at this phenomenon called destitution? I would like to try.
Websters dictionary gives the meaning of the word destitution as: “the state of being destitute; especially : such extreme want as threatens life unless relieved”. Most discussions define, elaborate or understand destitution in economic terms, the word poverty is never far and often forms a part of the definition of destitution. We are also aware of other forms and have experience/experienced them at various stages; cultural, moral, spiritual destitution, an artist could very well die a death by destitution of ideas.
In the context of dalits, no doubt, economic destitution is primary. For the lowest common denominator to be identified, what proportion of dalits has extreme want?
To me (in urban situations, as this is what we were exposed to) all the ragpickers sorting and working on mounds of filth and societies wastes, all those living and sleeping in railway, bus stations with pieces of rags to cover their bodies, majority of women and girls caught in the flesh trade, huge numbers of children begging on streets, working in teashops, factories and other nasty places, as a demographic would be destitute, as I have always seen and known -to whom the next meal is not assured without degradation of some basic human value.
Would this demographic be mostly dalits? the answer probably will be Yes! Within this minimal examples of destitute/s itself, we can see that it will also include non dalits, girls caught in trafficking will not be just dalits, right?
We as dalit migrants to the city with ancestry of agricultural laborers and participation in military service for a few generations, for a number of unexplored reasons did not become part of the above demographic. That is the ones subjected to ‘chronic destitution’. Hence we will refrain from talking ‘to’ or ‘for’ this group. However, members of our extended family were part of another form of destitution, that being ‘seasonal destitution’. By this, I mean dalits involved in labor which by nature is periodic and destitution became part or loomed large in their lives. For such groups, we could maybe articulate our perceptions of dalit seasonal destitution, by virtue of being part of this group through blood and close association without falling into the trap of commenting on those incapable of articulation for themselves at this point.
Three groups of migrants come to my mind as known individuals, families and friends;
a) Destitution of construction laborers, in Bangalore city, don’t we know first hand of how the lifestyle changed during the building season? Their clothes looked better, food was available, aspiration for better life was palpable, even as they ended their days after 8-10 hours of hard, hazard prone, uninsured work. When construction labor opportunities dried up, we witnessed their rapid descent into debt, the jewelery the women bought with hard earned money and wore so proudly, would be pawned, followed by every other material goods accumulated during the work period. Beloved tape recorders, radios, vessels, just about everything goes to the pawn broker, until the next season of work. These never ending repeating cycles are part of our non-erasable memories.
b) Dalit fisher folk (ones who assisted fishermen in their boat building activity, repaired nets and worked as helpers) along the beautiful Karwar coast. Some of them were your friends and our only playmates, they gave us another glimpse of seasonal destitution. With the onset of ‘Bangde’ harvest, the short season heralded days of plenty, the ravens got fat, the cats got fatter, and people had fresh fish for all three meals. Fairs, bright sarees, hopes, laughter, music and dances marked these days. Soon to be followed by the lean season, immediately expressed in the thinning crows and ravens, cats becoming scraggly and meals replacing fresh with dried fish, soon entire families would try to make do with a single dried fish cooked in broths to make it at least palatable. Then the rapid descent into chaos, fights, domestic battery, alcoholism, and of course prostitution, marked these hardworking people who forever seem condemned to live in thatched huts at the mercy of nature.
c) Later on I saw seasonal workers engaged in brick making in my neighborhood in Pune, little dark hovels made with broken bricks passed for their temporary homes. Days began for men and women workers well before dawn, they never had time to look up, wave or talk to us as we passed by. For they were bent over at their waist stirring the mud slurry, shaping the slurry into brick molds, hauling them to the furnace, re-hauling the dried ones to cool off, then haul them back to the waiting lorries -to build grand homes, offices, cities? It was only during weekends we could see the lovely faces of the children when the mothers found time to scrub the persisting black soot that they played in, all day long. As seasonal migrants school was out of question and day care, well! Parents seem resigned to let them play in fumes, ash and mud. Maybe knowing that this play time would last only a short period, before they too would begin the ‘bent at the waist routine’. With the onset of monsoons, the brick making stops, what happened to these people? I don’t know, except, that they all disappeared within the first few heavy torrents and their hovels crumbled. And they came back again next summer……….Sidhu, aqua and you may someday write your impressions of destitution, the different kinds we saw and continue to see in our lifetimes, maybe even flesh out some of those beloved faces with your own words, Please do….
The 3 groups I described above lived and continue to live a life that is simply not right. They labored hard, sweat , blood, limb, life and soul went into the season they found themselves employed. Yet, they have no means of survival in lean periods except destitution. a) is group in a major city like Bangalore, group b) in a remote coastal town, and group c) in a thriving University town. These migrants belonged to different categories of job skills and work environments. The common glaring themes among others are; interrupted school education of these migrant children, underpaid, exploited, no labor laws, no protection from anything. Add to that the persistent dangers and hazard to body and life by lethal accidents and fatal diseases (job related). Total lack of on site sanitation in any of the three locales mentioned, though the number of labor force employed on each site definitely demanded it. It is not even thought of as a necessity. Women invariably are the worst effected, most often waiting until evening and always going in groups to avoid being attacked, for the most basic human needs. This is their everyday life after slogging 8-10 hours. This is my India. Unchanged.
Now, coming back to destitution as a phenomenon, I would like us to examine it as a pathological state, a disease or a syndrome. -Not the destitute causes disease or disease causes destitution debates- but just consider destitution itself as a disease syndrome affecting humans.
Like any disease, what do we know about the causes, symptoms, affected demographics, treatment regimens and cures for this ancient scourge? If we have identified a (major) subgroup of destitute, it would be useful to know where we and all other agencies are putting our energies to get a holistic picture of what is being addressed and what is being neglected? Maybe we are too centered on the cause, or treating just symptoms or doing bits of everything but in a disconnected manner.
And if writing an oracle to one of the causative agents somehow liberates us from the cause, symptoms and provides physical and mental succor to dalits, then maybe we can and should prioritize it as high on the ‘to do’ or ‘to think’ about list:-).
This post dealt with our memories of economic destitution of dalits as we perceived it, we will take up other forms such as spiritual and moral destitution of dalits in later conversations.