After thousands of Dalits took a pledge at the Una rally to not lift carcasses in protest against the attacks on their community, they are now at major crossroads — looking for better means of livelihood that could help them lead a dignified life. Although they are eyeing government jobs, will the State wake up and do justice to the movement?
The road to Ilol is a delight for any one who happens to visit the place for the first time. It is a treat to see the lush green paddy fields on either sides of the road. Ilol is the largest village in Himmatnagar taluka of Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district. What is interesting to note is that the 12 km-long stretch of the village begins with the homes of Muslims with a Dalit vaas at its other end. Muslims form the dominant population here at around 70 per cent and most of them are land-owners.
The village has a 14.8 per cent Dalit population, with every sub-caste represented — these include the Vankar (traditionally weavers), Chamar (of whom many still lift carcasses and are in the tanning business), Garo (or Pandya, priests who do rituals), Tirgar (arrow makers), Senwa (basket weavers), Valmiki (cleaners).
The Vankars form the largest sub-caste category among the Dalits followed by Chamars. Dhanabhai Gobarbhai Vankar, who retired as a schoolteacher, is looked up to among the Vankars. “Since Independence, there has been no untouchability in the village,” says Dhanabhai, who recollects village Ilol as once dominated by upper castes, mainly Baniyas and Brahmins, who moved on to towns in search of greener pastures.
Most of the Dalits here are educated — Ilol has a 95.2 per cent literacy rate among men and 82.25 per cent among women. But the biggest worry for the villagers is the absence of jobs.
The recent flogging of Dalits in Una has hit them hard. It has made the Chamar rethink about the business they do i.e., leather trade. Referring to the Una incident, Somabhai Dhanabhai Chamar says: “Look what happened in (Mota) Samadhiyala. These so-called Hindus, they call Mohammedans home for meals, people who slaughter goats… but we remove carcasses, they never call us home, they bully us.”
The Dalits insist that Muslims do not discriminate them. The main reason for this bonding could be that both have the same liking for meat and Muslim farmers employ them as labourers in their farm lands for daily wages of Rs 60 – 70.
The Dalits have managed to strike a good rapport with the Muslim population as they keep them safe from the clutches of ‘gau rakshaks’. “They call themselves gau rakshaks, but the irony is that they don’t even keep a calf at home. They fear the Muslims, so they are quiet,” says Somabhai.
The Ilol gram panchayat has 19 members, of whom five are Dalits. The village has three primary and two higher secondary schools, one of which is run by a Muslim trust. And it has seven anganwadis, each for a different community. “Only Senva, Tirgar, Chamar, Pandya and Vankar children come to our anganwadi,” says Jassiben, who runs the anganwadi for Dalits.
Ilol sarpanch Ashraf Dantreliya says the anganwadis are located only for “convenience of distance” and not really demarcated by caste. Dantreliya also vouches for “communal harmony” in his village and says that only three to four persons are in the leather business.
The elder of Somabhai’s sons, Mahesh, is an MA graduate and vice-chairman in Sabar dairy’s Ilol branch, a job that is only to fill quota requirements, according to his father. His younger son is in college.
Punjabhai Kuberbhai Chamar, 68, a taluka panchayat member and father of three young men, says: “To get one job, we need to give Rs 7-8 lakh as donation. And we have not even seen Rs 5,000.”
This indicates how difficult it is for them to find employment. Dalits in Ilol are mulling to switch over from their leather business to the much safer and secured government jobs, but how?
Punjabhai says the point person in Ilol for leather business is Kalabhai Chamar. “Every Chamar still in the business has a contract with 10-odd homes. The animal is skinned, the hide treated and collected by Kalabhai who sells it to a trader,” Punjabhai says.
Kalabhai feels uncomfortable talking about his business. “I get nothing from this business, most of the money is spent on labour,” he says. None of his children wants to take charge of his business, he says.
Moreover, after the pledge at the Dalit rally in Una, they are not sure if they will lift carcasses anymore. “The skin job fetches nothing. The labour charge for hauling the cow is Rs 300, the rickshaw will charge Rs 200 for transport, and Rs 50 for loading. The skin would sell for Rs 700-800,” says Somabhai.
As an afterthought, he adds: “Now we are ready to become Muslim or Buddhists like Babasaheb.”
The long tradition of leather business is set to be dumped for a better living. At least 20 per cent of the labourers in the village are listed under the MNREGA, says Somabhai, “but there are no jobs”.
Vinodbhai Motibhai Parmar, 72, who retired as a government schoolteacher, has two sons. One of them has done BA and drives an auto. He applied for the job of a bus conductor but failed the test, much to the agony of the family. “They want donations, so they fail you in the orals,” laments Vinodbhai.
The second son has been jobless since Bayer India closed operations there. So, all the focus is now on government jobs that would make their lives secure and make them earn a decent income to survive.
According to leading social activist Martin Macwan, whose organisation Navsarjan Trust is the largest Dalit body and which works in 3,000 villages in the state, Dalits face rampant discrimination at all levels in Gujarat.
In April this year, a 31-year-old Dalit — Ketan Koradia, a clerk in a local court in Ahmedabad — committed suicide, alleging discrimination in the work place where he had constantly faced caste abuses.
Over the last 10 years, the CAG has reproached the Gujarat government for failing to ensure that enough development funds were allocated to Dalits in proportion to their population, as per the guidelines of the Planning Commission. Dalits, who represent 7.1 per cent of the state’s population, were allotted 1.41 per cent of the budget in 2007-08, 3.93 per cent in 2008-09, 4.51 per cent in 2009-10, 3.65 per cent in 2010-11 and 3.20 per cent in 2011-12.