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Uttar Pradesh: The caste inertia

Lucknow, Feb.29 (ANI): In Uttar Pradesh, you can spot an anti-Dalit (socially backward Hindu caste) village from a distance.

In a state where 21.5 percent of the 35.1 million population consists of Dalits, and all political parties beg for their votes, this caste should have been able to rise above abject poverty and deprivation.

There is almost never a functional road leading to a village in UP, and more so to a Dalit village. I walk half-a-mile on the dirt track and head to an Ambedkar village where a transformation of sorts is supposed to have taken place.

A water tank, which has never been cleaned, is the primary source of drinking water. Next to it, women in bright coloured synthetic saris, wash clothes, the dirt water flowing into the tank.

The stench of rotting garbage, animal and plant waste is overpowering.

Young children in shoeless feet and uncombed hair play on the outskirts, instead of being in school. Dilapidated huts are illuminated by cobwebbed light bulbs, as there is no electricity in the village due to a broken transformer, and no washrooms.

The only house that has a gas cylinder belongs to the pradhan (village headman). Goats are tied at random corners in the village. Only two families own buffaloes, none own land. They work in the farms and orchards of Pathans or Yadavs. Some have moved up a level to work in lands owned by upper caste Rajputs. Their nails are chipped, as they are farm labourers.

There is a small 'prathamik vidhyalay', a primary school in the village, set up a few years ago under an Ambedkar Gram Sabha Integrated Development Scheme introduced by Chief Minister Mayawati.

There are forty children who study here at any given time. There is just one class for all of them from age four to ten, one teacher for all subjects. A mid-day meal is cooked in a shed on a 'chullah'. The kids bring their own plates. There is a mound of garbage in one corner of the yard .On seeing my camera team; the headmistress gets around to getting it cleaned.

Rukayya Khan, the teacher here, says, "it is very difficult for us to keep the children interested in studies. They come from very poor homes where both parents are uneducated. Some suffer from alcohol abusive fathers. Very few of them go forward to middle school. They drop out after the fourth grade. Some of the kids are sent to school just because they get mid-day meals. Hopefully, with the 'Right to Education Act', more funds will come into this sector and more middle schools will be built closer to rural areas. I might get better teaching aids."

Saroj Kumar Gautam is a Shiksha Mitr or "Education Friend" who is a government appointee, and his sole job is to go from house to house, everyday, urging reluctant parents to send their children to school. He also helps children with their studies and chips in to do odd jobs in the primary schoolhe disinterest is evident in the village.

Mithibai, a grandmother, thinks education is a waste of time. She tells me that it gets them no jobs. Ultimately, the kids can only grow up to be landless labourers, a fate similar to their forefathers.

I walk half a mile from the village to a mangrove where some men are digging up a hard stone-covered ground. They are building a 'catch road' under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. They earn Rs.125 per day. Two of them have headphones on and are listening to Bollywood songs on their cell phones. None of them have been to school or held jobs.

I am warned not to venture further into the mangrove as there are wild dogs there and a tiger was spotted in the area some weeks ago.

I hastily head back to the village and catch up with the Shiksha Mitr who is doing his final lap before reporting for election duty.

In the kuccha homes that I visit with him, there is no furniture, no rugs, no books, and no toys. Some have stringed cots (charpoys), and aluminium vessels. The job cards and voter ID cards are kept locked in a trunk. Those are prized possessions.

Has there been any change in their lifestyle in the past five years? No. Who do they blame? Government and fate. Who will they vote for? Mayawati. Why? Because the Thakur and the Brahmin don't harm them anymore. Is that because they fear Mayawati? Could be. Why not Samajwadi Party? No particular reason. And the Congress? So long as Indira Gandhi was around, not any more. BJP? They only take care of Swarn Jaati (upper caste).

Mayawati, the Dalit icon, is in her fourth term as chief minister, yet U.P. still tops in crimes against the backward castes and communities. Atrocities continue; development is at a snail's pace. Uttar Pradesh is a state where caste is the single most dominant factor in society. Inter-caste marriages are rare even in towns and cities. In classrooms, everybody is aware of each other's caste.

Political parties promise change and development, but in its villages and towns, Uttar Pradesh seems to have given up.

In the India Shining, India Emerging, India Growing story, this state has lagged behind and shows no signs of picking itself up and joining the rest of the country.

By Smita Prakash (ANI)

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I am the Editor News, at Asian News International (ANI), Indiaís leading Multimedia News Agency and the India Correspondent for Channel News Asia, a Singapore based broadcaster.
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