The global pandemic is once again shining a bright light on of the world’s longest surviving social hierarchies. India’s caste system was believed to be approaching its end; but the COVID19 pandemic is showing how this social hierarchy is a dark horse.
The migrant labours, who walked thousands of kilometres after Prime minister Narendra Modi imposed nationwide lockdown; within just 4 hours notice; are now becoming the most prime target of caste-based discrimination. What kind of problem they have to face because of caste-based discrimination? How is the pandemic making a bad situation worse for them?
Caste System of India
Social distancing is new to the world, but it is nothing new to Indian society. Here Social distancing is been strictly followed for more than 2,000 years. The caste system of India can be dated back for more than 2,000 years.
The Indian caste system divides people into four varnas; namely ‘Brahmin‘, ‘Kshatriyas‘, ‘Vaishyas‘ and the ‘Shudras‘. Outside these four divisions stand the ‘Dalit’, so-called ‘untouchable’. According to latest data form Minority Rights Group, there are total 166.6 million Dalits in the country.
Evidence of caste-based discrimination can be found from very early ages, but the boundaries between the so-called ‘upper-caste’ and ‘lower-caste’ have become more rigid during colonial rule.
Soon after India gain independence, the government have put completely banned untouchability practices, constitutionally under article 17. Untouchability Offences Act of 1955, Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989; are some of the important acts by the Indian government for the complete abolition of the caste system.
What is the ground reality?
The policymakers during the formation of Indian Constitution knew how big issue caste system is; therefore a number of acts were introduced against it. But the caste-based discrimination was rooted in Indians during those times.
With times, things have changed. Urbanisation and industrialization in the country have swept new opportunities for people of lower caste; to get out of the trap and start fresh. Many people have left their villages and towns in search of better jobs and life.
But the global pandemic have forced migrant labours to return. Now most of the lower-caste migrant labour are again being shunned by the upper-caste society; which in this moment of crisis is only source of earning for them.
Caste System: how migrant labourers are being affected?
Raju Banskar, Madhya Pradesh
Raju Bhaskar is migrant labour who use to work on construction sites in the capital city of India, New Delhi. He was paid $3-$4 for a day; most of the time he had work and rarely anyone paid attention to his caste.
But after coronavirus, life has changed for him like most of the people in his community. The nationwide lockdown was imposed just with four hours of prior notice. The project he was working in, paused; forcing him to return back his village.
In an interview with Bloomberg News; he said that being from the lower-caste group have ceased all the chances of jobs for him. According to him, all the government allocated project is run by village headman belonging to upper caste. All the work jobs are given to upper-caste labourers leaving him and people of his group jobless.
Krishna Ahirwar, Aston
Krishna Ahirwar, a 22-years old woman from Aston village, central Madhya Pradesh, is also a migrant labourer. Like most of the people, she was also working in New Delhi, along with her family.
After returning to her village she is living in a separate locality; which is segregated just for the lower-caste group. She has been living in Delhi for a long time; therefore she won’t have any government document, nor do she own any land.
Being landless and without any government document she is not eligible to take rations, offered by government. She don’t have any job, nor any government help, which is making the situations worse for her and her family.
They are now obliged to return back to cities in search of job; despite the ever rising number of infected people by contagious coronavirus in the country.
Bablu Ahirwar, Lakheri
Bablu Ahirwar is a 22-year old man who lives in village Lakheri. He is also migrant labour who have been working on a construction site in New Delhi.
After returning to his village he is living with his family in his ancestral mud house. He says in the interview that he had sought the village headman for the job; but “the village headman is giving jobs to people from his caste,” says Bablu; “Nobody has anything for people like me”.
Migrant Labourers in catch 22
Million of migrant worker have escaped the caste-based discrimination, but the global pandemic has again trapped them all back. The cases of above people depict a very cruel picture of the caste system in India.
Labourers, who stayed in the village still have chances to get job opportunities; but the migrant labourers, stand a very little to no chance for it. In this condition, they are left with the only choice of migrating back to cities in search of jobs; risking their lives to the contagious virus.
India’s caste system is completely abolished from the country, constitutionally, but it still remain in very much existence. Many people still do believe and practice untouchability, in name of hygienic practices. The global pandemic is just highlighting the truth that has already existed for centuries.