Case studies

Fighting caste discrimination

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While working in the kitchen of a junior school , Gita Saroj, from Kesopur village in the Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, was set menial tasks by colleagues, because she was considered as belonging to a lower caste. However, with the support of PACS and partner Lokmitra, she gained the confidence to stand up for her rights, taking on the headmaster, altering her role and setting a positive example to her peers as a school committee member.

Geeta Saroj at the school where she works.

Feudal mindsets

When Gita Saroj of Kesopur village, in Lalganj block, Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, began working as a cook in the local junior school, she sensed something was wrong.  She was constantly being asked to step outside the kitchen while the other cook prepared the food instead. ‘I was not sure what was wrong, but something was, of that I was sure,’ she says. ‘Why was I being sent out again and again? Then it dawned on me: I was a Saroj, a lower caste, and the kitchen staff was not very comfortable with my presence!’

Arvind Kumar Maurya, a Field Coordinator for PACS partner CSO Lokmitra explains: ‘Traditionally, people from the lower castes have done jobs considered unclean, such as tanning leather or cleaning people’s homes, even removing sewage. The dominant castes have considered those in the lower rungs of the caste system dirty and have therefore refused to share food and drink with them. Caste-based discrimination is now illegal, but it persists – especially in rural areas. In many places, dominant castes still refuse to eat food cooked by those belonging to lower castes, inter-caste marriage is taboo, and people from upper castes often keep a separate set of utensils to serve food and drink to those from lower castes who might work in their homes or farms.

‘This was the reason for the treatment toward Gita Saroj and this is why hundreds like her from the lower castes have to face discrimination with regard to the midday meal (MDM).’

Refusing to back down

Gita complained to the headmaster, who is himself from a Scheduled Caste, and she stopped working. ‘I used to just sit outside the kitchen and do nothing. So one day, the staff complained to the headmaster. I told him: “I’ll do everything or I’ll do nothing”. He was taken aback but he told me to start working as usual, because even he could not openly tell me to stop working because of my caste.’

Arvind explains that he has noted resistance from schools and communities to hiring Dalit women as cooks. ‘One day, when I went to meet the headmaster, he asked me my name. I gave him my first name, but he insisted that I give him my full name. He wanted to assure himself of my caste. But then he hurriedly told me that caste was not important to him and he did not believe in discrimination. So I asked him: “Sir, would you go into a tea shop which had a board outside saying ‘Dalit Tea Shop’ even if it was run by a Brahmin?” He was speechless. I had made my point – it is all in the mind, and until mindsets change, very little will.’

Arvind Maurya, field coordinator of PACs partner organisations Lokmitra.

Gita says that while she was asked to sit outside and to do menial tasks, such as fetching water, firewood or cleaning the vegetables, women from other castes did the cooking. One day they told her: ‘“We decided to give an ‘outcaste’ like you the job because we wanted to give you an opportunity to make a living. But don’t tell anyone outside the school or your community because we don’t want to make it a practice in the village.” This was when I decided I would speak out against the practice to end it once and for all. How can a school teach untouchability?

‘I spoke to the headmaster about these issues, and he realised that, as a school management committee (SMC) member, I could make things very difficult for him and the school. So he came to the kitchen and spoke to the cooks there. It was after this that things began to change for me. Gradually, there was no more talk of caste and discrimination, and I began to be given all the tasks in the kitchen, even making food.’

Arvind says that discrimination affects everyone in the school. ‘What Gita did was courageous, because not many – especially women – can take on the feudal mindsets of the men here when it comes to issues like caste. We have seen this is why children from marginalised communities are dropping out. This unwelcome atmosphere makes them not want to go to school. So there is increased truancy and then they drop out all together. The same goes for teachers, cooks – everyone. Now women like Gita are showing the way to others in the village.’

Building confidence to tackle discrimination

For three years, Lokmitra has been working with community-based organisation (CBO) members such as Gita, to build their capacity, by taking them to meetings in Rae Bareli, Pratapgarh and Lucknow. In this way, the women have developed the confidence to negotiate with people from varied socio-economic backgrounds, and to articulate their opinions knowledgeably. Gita was empowered to become an SMC member, so she could contribute more to the community.

Gita says: ‘The incident in the school is something I do not want anyone from any community to face. So when it came to SMC meetings, we wanted to involve all the parents in the running of the school and in tracking their children’s progress. We began to discuss issues like personal hygiene, school attendance and MDMs in our meetings, regularly, which clearly made an impact on the way the school was run and how parents perceived the school. Now children come neatly dressed, toilets have improved and the personal hygiene of children is looking up. It is ironic that the school lunch programme had to start it all!’

She explains that, where previously, she used to sign the attendance register and do little else, she now makes sure that everything is prepared according to the school menu and the food is hygienic and tasty. This has improved standards so much that ‘the headmaster now tastes the food before it is served to the children’, she reveals. 

Midday meals programme

But what encourages Gita most is news that things are also changing elsewhere. For example, in the primary school in Payagipur, the headmaster ensured that no names of students were engraved onto the plates. This way, there could no discrimination against any child, since no child could now refuse to eat from the plate given to him or her.

Progress remains gradual: there are also instances such as the one at a primary school in Garhi Islamnagar, where the headmaster served tea to Arvind in a broken glass because he assumed he was from a lower caste. Arvind refused to drink it and asked his colleague – from an upper caste – to have the tea instead. Arvind laughs at the memory, but warns that innovations, such as the MDM scheme, can be a mixed blessing.

He explains that MDMs are designed to enable every child to eat nutritious food and thus to encourage more children from marginalised communities to enrol in school. ‘Where the MDM programme works well, it brings people from different castes together. But in states like Uttar Pradesh, it has become another tool for some people to practise discrimination in all its ugly forms. As a result, when parents from socially excluded communities hear about it from their children, they ask them – who need education the most – to drop out of school instead of put up with the humiliation. This ultimately denies them the opportunity of completing their education and taking full advantage of economic opportunities they so desperately need.'

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