Stemming from a centuries-old Hindu social order, the caste system in India was abolished when the country gained independence in 1947. However, discrimination along caste lines remains widespread and the estimated 200 million Indians of low caste, known as the Dalits or “untouchables”, still face huge prejudice. But the growing Indian economy is driving social change and many Dalits are now living better lives.
Last year a group of economists and scholars linked to Pennsylvania University’s Centre for the Advanced Study of India, conducted a survey of over 19,000 Dalit households in Uttar Pradesh. The study found that 95 per cent of the Dalit community in the state live in proper concrete houses, compared to only 65 per cent 20 years ago. And more than 60 per cent of Dailt children were attending school. But Dalit children are often still marginalised, particularly in rural schools, where it is not uncommon to find them sitting on their own and eating food separately.
More and more, however, the Dalit community is fighting back. With adult literacy rates 10 per cent lower than the national average of 65 per cent, Dalit parents want to ensure their children are better educated, so the next generation can take advantage of India’s growing prosperity. In Uttar Pradesh, the BBC’s reporter Geeta Pandey, has found a Dalit community who plan to build a temple dedicated to a Goddess of English. Holding a pen in one hand and the constitution giving Dalits equal rights in the other, the Goddess will be a symbol of equality and literacy for the villagers of Banka. She will also be an encouragement for Dalit children to learn English.
English is an essential language for skilled jobs in India. It is also increasingly used as a language of communication between Indians from different states. The Dalit community in Banka hope that by increasing the learning of English, their young will stand a better chance of attending further education and of finding good jobs. For the villagers, English is the key to giving their children a chance to escape poverty and move far beyond the type of menial jobs Dalits were once expected to do. Instead of cleaning drains and toilets, or removing dead animals, Dalit parents hope that their children will be doctors, lawyers or teachers, and maybe even employers and benefactors who will then encourage other Dalits to follow their lead.