India--The Good, the Bad, and the Caste System
June 21, 2010 | Hyderabad, India -- Pepperdine Law student Tracey spent the summer interning with the Dalit Freedom Network and Operation Mercy. She worked with the anti-human trafficking departments to help set up four anti-trafficking teams across India.
Oh, India! I have a love-hate relationship with this country. I love its people--most of whom are warm and friendly and gentle. But I'm still working on appreciating all aspects of their culture--for instance, I prefer toilet paper, silverware, and seat belts while Indians find all three to be nuisances. I love the women's beautiful saris--the gorgeous fabrics and rich colors, but I get frustrated by the filth of the cities--especially as my Indian friends try to teach me that ground=garbage can. Since being here, I've learned that I even love India's Constitution and many of its laws. Untouchability was officially outlawed by India's Constitution in 1950. In fact, the Constitution states that an act of "untouchability" is a punishable offense. In the 1980s, the government of India introduced the "Special Component Plan" by which a portion of the nation's annual budget was to be dedicated to assisting Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in rising above the poverty line. The portion of the budget to be allocated was to be proportional to the percentage of the population made up by "Untouchables." For example, the 2001 census revealed that 16.2% of India's population were members of a Scheduled Caste. Thus, under the SCP, they should have received the benefits of 16.2% of the budget. Great laws! But unfortunately the great laws surrounding the Untouchables are rarely enforced. Untouchability still runs rampant here. Dalits can't drink from the same water source as upper caste members; they can't worship in the same temples; they lack access to the same schools and hospitals. And that 16.2% of the budget the Schedule Castes were supposed to get? They got 4.5%. I was able to meet with the President of the Centre for Dalit Studies this week who was explaining this disparity between what's written law and what actually happens. He is a Dalit himself and said that the situation today is no better than it was 50 years ago when he was in school. He said he used to have to sit in the corner of the village school he attended, rather than at desks with the upper caste kids...the teacher would write the Dalit children's lesson on a small chalkboard and throw it at them. He said at least then, the Dalit children were educated (even if it was in a humiliating manner). Today, he explained, the upper caste parents send their kids to private schools in the city, so the government no longer monitors the schools in the villages...often the teacher just doesn't show up, and when she does, the children receive a sub-par education. As I complete more research for the Dalit Freedom Network's new anti-human trafficking department, I am learning that almost 100% of the girls and women who are dedicated to Hindu goddesses and later forced into prostitution are Dalits. The statistics and stories are depressing....but just when the world shakes its head in despair...the saints come marching in. The people at Dalit Freedom Network and Operation Mercy believe India doesn't have to be this way. So they fight against the caste system from every angle--from lobbying the governments of the world to recognizing the value in educating one little Dalit child. It's a slow, tedious, and complex process. But it's a beautiful one to witness. The office I work out of is on Operation Mercy's campus. I'm on the third floor. The first two floors are made up of one of the organization's Dalit Education Centers. Children whose parents work backbreaking days in the rock quarries are picked up by busses and taken here. They get a quality education, equal to that which their upper caste peers are receiving. When I see these children in their little blue uniforms with big smiles on their faces I'm filled with joy. They've just been given one of the best gifts they could receive--an education...a ticket out of their fate as a bonded laborer. Down my hall from the office is the micro-finance department where women who were once living in poverty in one of India's countless slums are busily sewing and making jewelry. They've been given either a job or a small loan that's enabled them to start their own business and to provide food and shelter for their families. And in my office, the anti-human trafficking team is hard at work researching, interviewing, planning, and preparing for the launch of four anti-human trafficking units throughout India. Transformation is taking place here...I am beyond grateful I get to be a tiny part of it.