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Half of non-Dalits in Rajasthan, UP, one third in Delhi report "practicing" untouchability

Counterview Desk
A recent paper “Open defecation: Manual scavenging’s legacy in rural India” by Payal Hathi and Diane Coffey of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, has undertaken a mobile phone survey, called Social Attitudes Research, India (SARI), in order to collect data on caste prejudice among adults in several states in India, claiming to confirm what manual scavenging activists have long argued: that Indian society suffers from deeply ingrained casteist attitudes.
Prepared for an edited volume to be published by the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS), according to the paper, "One form of explicit prejudice that SARI measures is untouchability", insisting, "The practice of untouchability comprises many forms of discrimination that relegate Dalits to the lowest rungs of society’s social and economic hierarchies."

Excerpts:

 SARI asked non-Dalit Hindu respondents about whether they themselves practice untouchability, and about whether someone in their family practices untouchability. The survey shows the percent of people who said “yes” to that question, among men and women in different places in India.
Even in India’s supposedly cosmopolitan metro cities of Delhi and Mumbai, large numbers of non-Dalits say that either they or someone in their family practice untouchability. The numbers from Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are particularly disturbing, with over half of all non-Dalit Hindu adults reporting the practice of untouchability.
Numbers are lower in urban areas than rural areas, potentially due to the liberalizing force of urbanization. Women are more likely to report untouchability, which may reflect actual practice, or it may reflect less awareness of what is a socially acceptable response.
These figures are perhaps surprising, considering that untouchability has been illegal for many decades. They are also likely an underestimate of the true fraction of people who practice untouchability, because some people may not have felt comfortable explicitly sharing their prejudices. SARI is not the first study to explore untouchability.
These results are reminiscent of Anant’s study (Anant, Santokh Singh [1975]. "The changing intercaste attitudes in North India: A follow‐up after four years", in "European Journal of Social Psychology" 5.1: 49-59) of high and low caste men in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Anant’s research measured attitudes of non-Dalit towards Dalits in 1968, and again 1972. Anant expected that attitudes would have become more liberal over time because industrialization and greater urbanization might bring greater contact among people from different caste backgrounds.
However, he found that while some attitudes had become more liberal over the five year period he studied, very little had changed when it came to attitudes towards personal interactions with Dalits, such as dining together and intermarriage.
On the prohibition against non-Dalits sharing food with Dalits, which is a common untouchability practice, Anant noted that “it appears that the majority of the respondents still believe in the traditional ideas of pollution” (pg. 56). Unfortunately, many SARI respondents reported holding this type of attitude even today.
Percent of non-Dalit adults reporting that they or someone in their family practices untouchability
SARI also asked Dalits about their own perceptions of discrimination. In Delhi, 23% of Dalits reported that caste discrimination has actually gotten worse over the past 5 years, and in UP, 20% of adults said the same. In Rajasthan and Mumbai, SARI asked Dalit respondents how likely they thought it was for members of their group to experience discrimination in school, from police, and from government officials. Many Dalits reported that facing discrimination is likely.
In Mumbai, where only men were interviewed, 47% of respondents said that it is somewhat or very likely that a Dalit in Mumbai would face discrimination from government officials, and 42% said discrimination in school is somewhat or very likely. 35% said discrimination by police is somewhat or very likely.
In Rajasthan, where both men and women were interviewed, 53% of Dalit adults reported that it is somewhat or very likely that a Dalit in Rajasthan would face discrimination from government officials, 30% said discrimination in school is somewhat or very likely, and 40% said discrimination by police is somewhat or very likely.
The fact that the pace of change in social attitudes over the last 50 years has been slow is unsettling, as is the fact that many Dalits report that discrimination is likely. These results also cohere with the experiences of manual scavengers who try to find alternative employment.
Several states have programs that are similar to plans for rehabilitation for manual scavengers outlined in 2013 Act. These programs extend loans to manual scavengers to give them capital to begin working in a different profession. However, prejudiced social attitudes can make working in a new job impractical, as a woman in Bihar described to journalist Bhasha Singh ( "Unseen", Penguin Books, 2014).
“We know that this work is illegal, but the law won’t fill our bellies. We cannot do without manual scavenging. The government asks us to take loans, but one has to pay them off too. How will it be paid off? No one eats anything we touch, so what work should we do? Once I had opened a tea stall. No one came to have tea. Everyone said, ‘This tina-wali has lost her mind. Trying to become a Brahmin by opening a tea stall. Who will drink tea made by a manual scavenger? …The heroine thinks that she can make tea and hide her caste, but it is written on your forehead and you won’t be able to wipe it off at least in this birth’” (p.52).
Unfortunately, rather than being a relic of the past, belief in and the practice of untouchability is very much alive today. Indeed, it pervades many aspects of Dalit life, both public and private. As the government expends such vast resources and effort to fight the scourge of open defecation, it is essential that policy conversations begin to address the casteist attitudes that lie at the root of India’s sanitation challenge.
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Download the paper HERE

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