For the past few months, a section of our countrymen has engaged the nation in a battle of slogans, the latest being ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’(hail mother India).
From all that we can get from fierce television debates and newspaper headlines, the section that raked up this issue makes us believe that it is compulsory to chant this slogan in order to prove one’s nationalistic credentials.
Another group does not feel such sloganeering necessary to show one’s love for the nation. And there are many in between who seem to be confused and gullible.
The fact is that the country’s political parties, intellectuals, and media have moved away – unintentionally or intentionally – from the real issues that define the lives and living conditions of common Indians.
The idea of India, after its Independence, is defined by the Constitution so well that we really do not need the help of flags and slogans to delineate it any further.
A mother and her untouchable children
The Mother India, our sacred country, calls for fair and equal treatment to all Indians as defined by the Constitution. But the Bharat Mata in the grassroots has many forms of inequalities; some continuing for thousands of years and some incorporated in recent times.
On the World Water Day, let me discuss on one important section of the Indian population that has been subjected to innumerable forms and types of discrimination since ages: it is about the Dalits, the untouchables.
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Discrimination against Dalits is as old as our caste system. Access to sources of water has traditionally been synonymous with access to power in many Indian communities.
The modern Indian society is not much different. Visit any village and you will find the habitation of the Dalits is segregated from that of the upper caste; same is the case with water sources.
Ponds and rivers have separate bathing ghats for Dalits. As far as tube wells are concerned, they have either separate ones for themselves or have a separate timing to access the point.
Stories of Dalits being beaten up, tortured and even killed for accessing water from sources belonging to the upper castes are not uncommon.
Discrimination in 21st Century Mother India
If in case you are thinking I am talking about the past and not the modern day India, some recent examples would be good to wake you up.
On the 8th day of this month, as the country was celebrating World Women’s Day, the nine-year-old son of a Dalit mother in Madhya Pradesh, died of drowning in a well while trying to get water to quench his thirst after taking the mid-day meal.
Like every, he went to the well because he was denied access to the nearby hand pump. But unlike every day, he lost balance and fell into the well.
Dalit Adhikar Abhiyan of Madhya Pradesh recently conducted a survey in thirty villages. It found out that 92 percent of the villagers admitted they did not allow Dalit students in schools to drink water on their own.
Further, about 80 percent of the villagers admitted to debarring Dalits to drink or fill water from public water sources.
The parents of Dalit children also said their children are allowed to access drinking water sources in schools only when non-Dalits are not using them. Many Dalit children wait to return home, after school hours, to quench their thirsts.
In June 2013, media reported about an openly written discrimination in water supply in Dhanwada village, just about 45 km from Gujarat’s financial capital city Ahmedabad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state then.
It was written on the wall at the entry point of the bore-well room, “Rajputs and Patels will get water from 8 am to 10 am. Then, from 10 am to 12 noon, it is the turn of the Bharwads and Vaghris and lastly, Harijans and other untouchables for the next two hours.”
Real India and its neglected children
The Constitution does not allow all these. In fact, it is a grave offence under Indian laws to discriminate against lower castes and practicing untouchability. Ironically, the state itself discriminates against the Dalits.
According to latest census figures, only about 35 percent of Scheduled Caste families (or the Dalits) have water sources within their premises, whereas it is about 53 percent for the general castes.
Almost near about 60 percent of Dalit households (meaning mostly women) have to walk away from their premises to fetch drinking water for their families. For the general caste, however, this figure stands at 47 percent.
Then, out of the 65 percent Dalit women who go out, almost a half have to walk up to faraway places, sometimes five to ten kilometers, to fetch drinking water.
As the hyperbolic debate continues to center around slogans, the real India slips off the development discourse.
This World Water Day let the real India prevail over the India of slogans. Let’s admit, once and for all, that water divides people and discriminates against the socially excluded groups in this real India of ours. And let’s say that is not acceptable.
(Ranjan Panda is an Indian environmentalist, water and climate change expert).
Ranjan Panda, popularly known as Water Man of Odisha, is an expert on water, sanitation, environment and climate change issues. Views expressed are personal.