Home »  Magazine »  Society  » Cover Stories  »  Edge Of Town

Edge Of Town

The ubiquitous free market with its promise of the modern and its emphasis on a brutal productivity ethic has only reinforced traditional structures of exploitation. India's untouchables—there are many kinds of them—stay out of sight... till calamity

Edge Of Town
Satish Kumar
Edge Of Town
Chained to a tree for two years, Asainar has little hope of escaping his madness. Or the insanity that surrounds him at the Erwadi dargah in Tamil Nadu. Where hundreds of mentally ill like Asainar are left to rave, rant and rot. Some are shackled for days, others for decades. Two weeks after 27 mental patients were charred to death in one of Erwadi's many hellish 'mental homes' near the dargah, the others are still fettered and already forgotten in India's amnesiac collective consciousness. On that fateful morning, the inmates had shrieked and struggled violently to free themselves from the shackles even as the blaze consumed them. But Asainar, the odd inmate, still bound to his tree at Erwadi, a pilgrim's village in Ramanathapuram, is oblivious of their horrific tragedy, and to his own...

This is the tragedy of being an Unequal Indian. Of managing to eke out a tenuous survival on the fringes, a member of a multiplying underclass that no one cares for. Maimed and marginalised by the nation's history as also by the processes of her frenetic progress. They are our weakest citizens—too faceless, voiceless and geographically segregated to mobilise themselves into protesting groups. Abandoned variously by the State, community and even their families. Because of caste, gender, disability, illness, age, or for being born into paucity.

They are 21st century India's oustees, left to a hardscrabble near-destitute existence. They include:

  • Landless migrant labourers building our highways.

  • Scavengers scraping excreta off our latrines.

  • Beggar widows pleading for our charity.

  • Children of pauperised tribals sold for survival.

  • The disabled or mentally unsound, who are discarded and chained at temples and dargahs like at Erwadi.

  • Stigmatised and shunned patients of ailments like aids.

    "Historically, marginalised populations, like say the Dalits, always existed in India. But today, the types, numbers, degrees of marginalisation and neglect have increased manifold and taken on grim proportions," says Dhirubhai L. Sheth, political sociologist and editor of development journal Alternatives. Indifference and callous disregard for those who don't find a place in the feelgood middle-class-India Club is increasing alarmingly. Says Sheth: "Poor relatives have been disowned." Which in turn, observes public interest researcher Akhila Sivadas, has given rise to a new underclass that never existed before. Old people's homes are not new institutions, not even in a society like India where family ties and values have till recently been rather strong. But with productivity becoming the new buzzword in these times of the unbridled market, the 'unproductive'—comprising the old, sick, disabled—has led to the burgeoning of the new underclass. In more humane times, however, these people were taken care of by the family. Their sense of economy, largely uncontaminated by the germ of efficient productivity, allowed that. The village barter economy and the joint family premised on an agrarian economy are two such key instances.

    Says Sivadas: "Now, they've all been left to fend for themselves in neo-pragmatic, monetised India." With its welfarist values on the wane, the State has ceased making any meaningful interventions to help the weakest, adds jnu sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed, "thus completely leaving them to the vagaries of their existence".

    Revisiting Erwadi's macabre realities verify these theories on ground. Last year, an Institute of Mental Health report on the asylums that proliferate in Erwadi testified: 87 per cent of the 550 mentally ill in tin-shed asylums are without toilets, average period of stay for inmates 15.8 years, "no patient is given any medical treatment". The government did nothing for these ill. Nor does the modern nuclear family, with its own peculiar economic compulsions. "My son Zakir left me here," sobs Mohammed Kasim, 73-year-old inmate at Erwadi's Shifa Mental Home, "He wouldn't give me enough money, and then say he didn't like me begging on the streets."

    Kasim's story of abandonment finds a chilling echo in distant Vrindavan. Where thousands of poor old widows, discarded by their families, end up singing Lord Krishna's praises for sustenance. Five branches of the Vidhwa Bhagwan Bhajan Ashram here dole out 250 grams of rice, 50 grams of pulse and a princely Rs 2 per widow for eight hours of mandatory chanting. The indignity, sheer inhumanity that is unleashed as the hungry old women clamour and battle for this pittance is repugnant. Exhausted chanters till moments ago, they turn fanatic fighters determined to get a bite of charity before anyone else does. Widow pushes widow, kicking those who are older, weaker, for a place in the queue that promises deliverance from starvation for the day. Pompous men in authority bombard expletives from the sidelines, threatening the hapless women to fall in line.

    The frenzy subsides, till another such queue is to be formed in the evening, to distribute Rs 2 per widow. For now, the first few women walk out clutching small polythene bags half filled with some rice and dal. Most proceed to beg on Vrindavan's streets for more; more to pay rent for the cubbyhole shacks that they share with others for shelter, and more for times when they won't be strong enough to fight others in the exhausting charity queue.

    Their tired resignation wrenches the heart even more. Sixtysomething Jamuna Dey, dumped at the Vrindavan station by her family 39 years ago, declares: "There's little to complain. I'm a woman, a widow and old, to suffer is my fate."

    This absence of protest rings shrill. "But then, bereft of access to mainstream language, the marginalised don't have what it takes to be heard in this country today. That is precisely one of the reasons for their marginalisation," contends social scientist Ashis Nandy. English and now Hindi, he argues, are the only languages which evoke concerned response in a modern India impatient—and unconcerned—with whimpering dialects. "mtv sounds better than the muddled angst verbalised by people who can't speak our language, or even cope with our idea of progress," says Nandy wryly.

    Like the Lambada tribals of Andhra Pradesh. Who, pathetically outpaced by the new economy of a liberalised India, have taken to routine bartering of their girl children for paltry sums of money to sleazy adoption shops. This year, in April, the state department of women and child welfare raided such unlicensed adoption centres in Hyderabad, and the neighbouring districts of Mehboobnagar and Rangareddy. To find and rescue 192 children on sale. These babies were appropriately produced before the media as photo-ops, then promptly dumped in the state-run Shishu Vihar (infant home).

    Lambada mothers, meanwhile, are still waiting to be rescued from deprivation. So excruciatingly needy are they that they've been known to sell their newborn offspring real cheap to keep the older ones alive.Soon after the raids, Bheemi Bai, mother of four daughters and Pedda hamlet resident, had confessed to selling her unborn baby for an advance of Rs 100 to agents of an adoption agency. Later, when Bheemi's girl was born, the buyers took her away. Bheemi's stone-faced statement to the police was: "I do not know where she is, I don't want to know. And I don't want to talk about it."

    For there seems little sense in relating the agonising compulsions that pushes a mother into selling the flesh and blood she's carried in her womb. Yet a Lambada mother living on Hyderabad's outskirts decides to verbalise her pain, but only after repeated assurances of anonymity: "I've sold two of my five daughters. My husband beats me everyday, demands that I conceive a son. We're construction labourers and have no money to feed our children. My husband feels a son will bring us fortunes. What can I do?"

    Nothing really. Not till, armed with its selfish and myopic understanding of progress, middle-class India continues to set the agenda for development. To mindlessly urbanise, industrialise and encourage impersonal contractual business and social relationships. And ironically sometimes use the same villagers, tribals and Dalits they harm most by these processes to implement their self-seeking plans. Like on Ladakh's inhospitable heights, where 25,000 migrant labourers are paid a meagre daily wage of Rs 80 to lay some of the world's highest metalled roads. They are called 'Biharis', because few know or care to know that these outsiders from Dumka are recent Jharkhandis, a new state which raises very little hope anyway.

    Sanjay Saha, 16, is a fresh arrival from Dumka. The frail boy has taken on Leh's hazardous and temporary employment so that he can feed his mother and sister: "The weather is bad here, we get dirty clothes to wear, have to pay Rs 700 for food.#" Sanjay's skin is charcoal black because of noxious tar fumes, and he suffers from stomach-aches, shortness of breath, sunburns and wind-chapped lips. Naseem Ansari, 22, explains why he prefers it to the acute deprivation back home: "We don't have our own land in Dumka. And too many poor people are looking for work there."

    So, any work that feeds the stomach suffices, however inhuman or revolting. Even cleaning filthy dry latrines by hand will do for those who don't know how to cope better. That's what men and women from the Bhangi caste do for survival in affluent Ahmedabad. Despite patron-saint Gandhi's strong will to the contrary. In fact, in many cases, it's the government which employs them as 'sweepers' to bypass laws banning the practice. Armed with two small tin plates and a plastic sheet, these 'sweepers' clean up nauseatingly stinking public toilets which are always out of water.

    Not surprisingly, Bhangis, 'the lowest among the lower castes', continue to be untouchables for the upper castes even in AD 2001. They are marginalised and treated with disdain, they say, even by other Dalits like the Chamars and Vankars. Confesses Bhanubhai Chauhan, a 'sweeper' in Ahmedabad: "I am very nervous about entering the house of anybody who is not a Bhangi. It would be pompous on my part." To be Bhangi is to live a vermin-like existence. Asked why the Ratnapur Jain temple in Gujarat's Surendernagar town doesn't instal flushes in its open latrines, the temple authority replies matter-of-factly: "Jainism forbids killing germs, flushing would kill germs." Instead, they get Bhangis to pick up excreta.This in itself is not a new phenomenon. Gujarat's inhuman social practices vis-a-vis the Dalits, particularly the Bhangis, have a long history. Ketan Mehta's Bhavani Bhawai brought this exploitation before a larger audience as early as 1980. The productive principle driving the glittering tableaux of the free market has only exacerbated these cruel disparities and has made them even more stark. This clearly shows how the market, with its promise of the modern, has only served to heighten the age-old traditions of caste apartheid.

    And that's not the end of the story. The same process has simultaneously produced new outcasts, the New Untouchables. People with hiv-aids. Riddled with prejudice and suspicion: perceived as sexually immoral people, licentious gay men, prostitutes, eunuchs, who could pass on their contagious disease if not kept away. But with 3.7 million hiv-aids cases already in the country, and many from the upper class, it's becoming increasingly difficult to marginalise them.

    "But it's in the upper-middle class that there's lesser degree of tolerance," says Somu who tested hiv positive in 1993, and is being treated by yrg-Care, a Chennai-based ngo working with aids patients. Unable to cope with Somu being an hiv-positive homosexual, his "embarrassed" brother took a transfer to Coimbatore. Alienated from his family and relatives, and thus more sensitive to the travails of his kind, Somu has plunged into gay advocacy. But Chennai resident Jaya still hasn't been able to muster courage to tell her in-laws about her positive status: "If they know, they'll blame me for both my husband's and my own infection. And in this they aren't alone. Doctors too are prejudiced. A private hospital, on learning of my positive status, refused to admit me for delivery just a week before my daughter was to be born."

    Sheth points out: "The idea today is to atomise. To detach the problem from its rootedness, to isolate and forget it. Not to absorb it within the community, or the family and treat it. And that is why it all seems even more heartless." Erwadi's mentally ill, Vrindavan's widows, Ladakh's 'Biharis', the abandoned Lambada children in Hyderabad's Shishu Vihar, Ahmedabad's excreta carriers are all misfits. Clinging onto the peripheries of societies alien to them.

    If old, they are doubly marginalised by these societies. For, the modern Indian family has decided to go aggressively nuclear, with little time, space and money to spare. Posing an incredible predicament for the country's growing populace of the aged. Some are already looking desperately for succour and accommodation. Says T.C. Narayan, vice-president of the Dignity Foundation, an ngo working with the elderly: "We receive at least 10 calls at our Mumbai office every day from senior citizens who complain of abuse." Barely two years ago, a 76-year-old couple had jumped to their death from their eighth-floor apartment in Mumbai's Kemps Corner. Their suicide note said: "Because of the constant abuse and harassment from our son and daughter-in-law we ended our lives."

    And those who live on are often dumped in dargahs like the one at Erawadi, or temples which abound in places like Vrindavan. These hell-holes, which had hitherto provided refuge to the victims of traditional prejudices, are being reinvented to serve the same purpose produced by a completely different reality. For her part Meena Kelkar, 65, managed to get herself into the All Saints Old Age Home in Mumbai's Mazgaon when her son threw her out nine years ago.She'd taken a year's refuge at her sister's before moving into the Home. Her son hasn't met her since. Cheated out of her property by her brother's family, Jyotsna Gomes was thrown out of the little tenement she had purchased with her savings at the ripe age of 70. She was lucky to have met a pastor that day as she sat desolate at a station. He brought her to the old home.

    But life in old-age homes can be very lonely. In the 17 years that Mary Phillip has been an inmate at the Shepherd's widow home at Byculla, she's had only one visitor. The octogenarian speaks wisdom: "When you are old, you are nobody."

    But surely 77 million old people together can't be nobodies. Why indeed is it that even as they grow in numbers, these dispossessed and disowned Indians tot up to nothing in electoral politics? Political analyst Yogendra Yadav has an answer: "Perhaps because they have no awareness of themselves as groups that might be able to affect vote-swings and exert pressures. Also, critical to electoral politics is the theory of aggregation, and geographically scattered as the marginalised are, they don't amount to much." That, indeed, is a grim epitaph for the "dregs" of India's troubled humanity.

    With S. Anand in Erwadi, Manu Joseph in Ahmedabad, Dhiraj Singh in Leh, M.S. Shanker in Hyderabad, Priyanka Kakodkar
  • Subscribe to Outlook’s Newsletter

    Next Story : Vikings, Anyone?
    Download the Outlook ​Magazines App. Six magazines, wherever you go! Play Store and App Store
    Online Casino Betway Banner