The inescapable connection between caste and poverty

‘I grew up in relative poverty in the early part of my life, until I reached sixth grade.After that my family was downgraded to a level below poverty...’

Image courtesy: social media
Image courtesy: social media

Suraj Yengde

In India, casteism touches 1.35 billion people. It affects 1 billion people. It affects 800 million people badly. It enslaves the human dignity of 500 million people. It is a measure of destruction, pillage, drudgery, servitude, bondage, unaccounted rape, massacre, arson, incarceration, police brutality and loss of moral virtuosity for 300 million Indian Untouchables.

In school I was humiliated for not paying fees on time. The clerk, Tony, would visit the classroom every quarter and call out my name, asking me to stand up. Once I did, he would read out how many months of fees were pending. The higher the number, the more the embarrassment. My classmates added shame to that embarrassment by quietly staring at me in disgust. This was a regular occurrence. Every time Tony came to class, I wanted to leave school and join the hustlers in my slum; they made money and lived as they wanted, without relying on anyone’s disrespect to get through the
hustle called life.

I grew up in relative poverty in the early part of my life, until I reached sixth grade. After that my family was downgraded to a level below poverty, officially known as Below Poverty Line (BPL).

BPL is a state-determined category that calculates the degrees of deprivation. The Tenth Planning Commission fixed seven ‘parameters’. Kerala has nine parameters, while Haryana has five parameters to identify families in regard to ownership of land and access to employment, education level, status of children, sanitation, roof, floor, safe drinking water, transportation, food, ownership of colour TV, fridge and so on. In addition, there is an income cap which varies and is adjusted according to one’s non-ownership of the above. In Maharashtra, the BPL numbers are premised on the basis of thirteen factors, identifying 46 lakh people (close to 50 per cent of the total population) below the poverty line in the 1990s and 39 per cent in the 2000s. In the year 2012, a World Bank report calculated 17 per cent of the total population below the poverty line. The report stressed on the rising poverty in the northern and eastern districts of Maharashtra. My district, Nanded, had 18 to 24 per cent of the population below the poverty line. There was, however, no distinction made between families belonging to the Scheduled Caste category and other categories. My family, on the urban fringes, fit into the BPL category perfectly…

So, my family had no agricultural land, colour TV or fridge and our income level was as low as it could be as my father was bedridden (health reasons meant he remained unemployed for most of our lives). He did not own a house. We lived on an inherited property of 30×40 feet, half the size of a basketball court—it was evenly distributed among three families comprising sixteen members in all. Access to sanitation was a struggle as we had only one bathroom and toilet. During the morning hours, cousins and siblings would line up as everyone’s school started at around the same time. The education level in my house did not go beyond tenth grade. Rusty, corrugated iron sheets that served as the roof were placed on fragile brick walls, pressed down with heavy stones weighing 10–20 kg so that they didn’t fly in the wind. Iron sheets transmit electrical current, and the chances of the stones slipping was greater during the rainy season. Iron sheets also meant that we got the first intimation of any change in weather. They were our live weather reports. Drizzles would alert us about the arrival of rain. We were the first to notice as those drops made thunderous noise. When it was summer the iron sheets would attract harsh sunlight. Whoever sat underneath them on a good summer day would choke as it was difficult to breathe. Due to lack of insulation the winter did not spare us either. We slept in the house bearing the ruthless weather. Our prayers round the clock were to somehow get rid of those iron sheets. Sadly, they were never answered. Whenever I visited my mother’s side of the family I would wake up surprised to notice that it had rained the previous night and I didn’t get to know—they had a thick roof made of cement which made no announcement of rain. The noise of a downpour in my own house made it difficult to sleep.

To survive in such a situation, I volunteered to do odd jobs, desperately looking for temporary relief despite my parents’ resistance. Once I thought of joining the boot factory where my friends from the area worked as manual labourers. Another time I worked on groundnut soil in the fertile region of Vidarbha, accompanying my mother’s family; I worked as a helper to a truck driver; I worked in a warehouse, all in my attempt to make ends meet. I did all this before I reached puberty.

My family continued to live in the shared house with one room and a kitchen. Till recently, when my mother decided she could not bear the pain of the broken tin roof any longer. She moved to my uncle’s house temporarily. She awaits the government promised subsidized housing for people in the BPL category. This promise of over six years ago has kept her hopes alive. Each year, she gets happy noticing the visit of government officials to survey the house.
And like each year, her hopes vanish. Her faith in the government arises not out of trust but from the hopelessness that she was put under by the state.

I grew up in a Dalit neighbourhood. Like all Dalit neighbourhoods in India, mine too was most neglected and placed on the fringes of power structures. The local government turned a blind eye towards us and our problems. Our area was seen by local authorities as despicable, hence it seldom received services of cleanliness and care. Outside each house was a dirty canal that carried faeces in the open, and flies hovering the dirt would often find their way into our house and kitchen. The canal was uncovered and shallow. More often than not, one of the flies would end up in the food we had to consume. Children would be crawling on the streets while their parents worked, flies hovering around their mouths. It was representation of poverty-stricken India.

Malaria-carrying mosquitos and typhoid-carrying flies had a permanent presence in our lives. The diseases that afflicted us were related to this exposure to viruses, a direct outcome of the lack of care and the negligence accorded to our existence. Weekly, a cleaner from the Mehtar, Mahar or Maang caste (employed by the city corporation through a Brahmin/Bania sub-contractor) would manually clean the canal and put the slime that consisted of people’s leftover food, shit, bathwater and all kinds of human and animal waste in the open for two to seven days. It would then harden and be difficult to remove. Crawling babies often ended up playing on this mountain of sewerage.

Many times, our cricket balls would end up in this canal and we had to dip our bare hands into the contaminated, darkened, thick muck, searching for it by going horizontal and navigating through the mess. We would often end up catching the ugliest and filthiest discarded things. Sometimes, it would be human waste, at other times hair, nails and other things the very thought of which brings nausea.

The neighbourhoods near ours were similarly infamous. The one on the west was Ambedkar Nagar and another on the east was Jai Bhim Nagar. Neither of these areas had a respectable reputation. Alarm bells would ring immediately if someone learned that I came from one of these areas. All kinds of stereotypes and prejudices were hurled against me and others who belonged to this part of the marked town. Whenever asked in school or college I would conveniently mention a neighbouring Brahmin area as mine. But casteists are casteists. They would question me about the house number and my neighbours. My lie would be caught and I would get a spiteful gaze to add to my embarrassment. Because those who lived there were not ‘people’. They were identified by their occupations: maids, servants, labourers, factory workers and hotel dishwashers.

These areas did not fit into the modern definition of working class neighbourhoods even though the majority of people living here were workers—skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled and so on. They never had what one would call a ‘job’ their entire lives. All they had was enslavement without a guarantee of fair returns. They lived with constant troubles which were not of their own making.

Thus, they never enjoyed a protected working-class stature. They were class outcastes who had the bare minimum for survival. They seldom had a stable job or a life. Owing to financial distress, many turned to drugs and crime as refuge as they seemed to be the only avenues open for survival. Fights—verbal and physical—violence, prostitution, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse were common.

These were the circumstances I grew up in.

(Extracted with permission from the publisher PenguinRandomHouse)

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Published: 4 Aug 2019, 12:19 PM