“Patna floods” said the front-page newspaper headline – as if we didn’t already know. The rain had hardly stopped since we arrived in the populous capital of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states and home to some of the country’s most marginalized groups.
As we picked our way towards the urban slum we were visiting the other side of the city, the light drizzle turned into a definite pelt against the car roof. Men in longis, knee deep in water, emerged from waterlogged alleys, while motorcyclists held their legs in the air as their bikes splashed through the flooded streets.
It was a fitting start to a week focusing on the water and sanitation issues faced by Dalit communities or “scheduled castes” – those that fall outside of India’s historical rigid caste system. Many Dalit women share the same surname, Devi, meaning “goddess” in Hindi. It’s an ironic moniker given that they are often expected to undertake some of the most undignified jobs in the world. These are the communities of rag pickers who scour the rubbish heaps to find garbage to resell; the sanitation workers who manually clean septic tanks; and the manual scavengers – the men and women who clean the dry latrines across the state.
As largely landless communities, Dalits usually have little other option in urban areas than to cram into the already crowded slums, where their access to clean, safe water and sanitation is often severely limited. Many still get their water from dirty shallow wells, or illegally from leaks in the city’s piped water supply. The stories about the impact of this lack of basic human rights have undoubtedly been the most shocking I’ve ever heard.
But there are signs that Dalits are working to break this cycle of inheritance and fighting for changes for their communities.