Leaving No One Behind in India

Ranjan K. Panda, a known water, sanitation and climate change expert of India. Can be contacted at ranjanpanda@gmail.com

While visiting a village in Bastar region of India, I found some young children standing beside a hand pump. They were waiting for their turn to draw water as another group of children were getting their supplies.

As in any drought year, most of the hand pumps in the village had dried up. Only a couple were functioning, although they dispensed water very slowly.

It’s not rare to see a queue for water in any part of India. But this, however, was different. I felt uneasy watching the children as they stood an unnatural distance far from the pump. And as I enquired, my suspicions were confirmed: these children were from another nearby hamlet and belonged to a lower caste. They had to keep their distance from the children of a higher caste as they waited for the pump to become free.

Drought and the caste system

Drought has increased the number of children who are forced to fetch water and miss school. But the caste barriers further disadvantage those from a lower standing. They reinforce the educational and wealth gaps, deepening India’s inequality.

In March 2016, as the water crisis became increasingly critical, women and children from excluded groups such as the Dalit caste, whose members are often referred to as the “untouchables”, began to face further discrimination. In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, a Dalit boy died after falling down an open well outside his school grounds. He was not allowed to draw water from the school’s own supply.

The Sustainable Development Goals were introduced last September with a commitment to “leave no one behind”. This promise can provide hope for the 201 million Dalits in India, born into a centuries-old tradition of discrimination that gives them little hope of social mobility or dignity in life.

What does it mean to be a Dalit?

Visit any village and you will find Dalit residents separate from the upper castes in all areas of daily life.

Dalits have separate bathing and washing compartments. Wells have either separate times of access for different castes or even two wells. There are many stories of Dalits who have been attacked or even killed for accessing water from sources which were only to be used by the upper castes.

Indian law has made such discrimination illegal. Yet, the state itself discriminates against the Dalits.

According to latest census figures, only about 35% of Dalit families have water sources within their premises, whereas this figure is about 53% for the general castes. For the households that have to travel to the closest water supply, the journey can be as far as 10km, and this burden more often than not falls on the women of the home.

India may boast one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Yet for many of its citizens trapped in the caste system, they struggle to even lead a dignified life.

If the Sustainable Development Goals commit to “leaving no one behind”, they are promising to reach those like the Dalits born into the bottom of society. Can the Global Goals include the excluded?

This blog was inspired when the author was working on a study titled “Socially Exclusion and Inequality: Opportunities in Agenda 2030”. 

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