Dalits are yet to be liberated from the stranglehold of caste-based occupations such as manual scavenging, laments Martin Macwan. The Gujarat-based activist and winner of the Robert F.Kennedy Human Rights Award spoke to Vidya Venkat about the need to promote entrepreneurship among Dalits.
It was his moment of realisation when on a visit to a village in Gujarat he came across Valmiki scavengers demanding the village panchayat to replace their broken brooms so that their hands would not get soiled while removing human waste. “It struck me as to how the Dalit community was trapped in its caste occupation and the most they could aspire for was new brooms,” says Martin Macwan, “But the panchayat would even deny that citing lack of funds…”
In 1989, he founded the Navsarjan Trust, a grassroots organisation, which has been working for social justice for the Dalits. It has raised issues such as discrimination against Dalits in educational institutions and atrocities against them. Through its Dalit Shakti Kendras, the organisation imparts vocational training for youth from the community to liberate them from their traditional occupations such as scavenging.
Mr.Macwan visited Madurai and then Chennai last week to learn more from the experiences of French bakery La Boulangerie that helped Dalit youths to become entrepreneurs by training them in food processing technology. “At a time when we are talking of a stronger India and economic progress, encouraging entrepreneurship among Dalits should be the way forward,” he says.
But vocational training alone is not enough; the social and political struggle for justice has to continue as long as the community is trapped in unhealthy occupations such as manual scavenging, he says. “In Gujarat alone, the government has conceded that 65,000 Dalits are working as manual scavengers. This is true of several other states, including Tamil Nadu, where the scourge continues,” he adds.
Unfortunately, the Central and State governments are guilty of being the biggest violators of the law prohibiting manual scavenging as they employ more scavengers than private agencies. “This calls for judicial intervention to bring about necessary reforms,” he says.
“Recently, the Gujarat High Court Chief Justice filed a suo moto case against manual scavenging in government agencies. Other courts can replicate this method in their respective states,” he suggests.
A victim of child labour and discrimination himself, personal is political for Mr.Macwan. As a student of St.Xaviers College in Ahmedabad in the early 1980’s, he worked on a project dealing with caste oppression.
In 1986, while working for the cause of land redistribution for Dalits, two of his friends were murdered by local landlords. The incident brought a radical transformation in his approach and he intensified his political and judicial activities.
He has formulated a new definition of Dalits. “Anyone who believes in and practices equality is a Dalit. I hope, if defined thus, everyone would want to be one,” he says with a smile.
(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition dated Feb 15, 2009)