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Caste Off

One day in 2007, a stranger came to JJ Nagar village in South India’s Tamil Nadu state, promising girls from the village a chance to change...

One day in 2007, a stranger came to JJ Nagar village in South India’s Tamil Nadu state, promising girls from the village a chance to change their lives. The man went from house to house offering to sign up any girl over 14 to a three-year term in a yarn factory. At the end of the period, the young women would earn bonuses of $800 (about a year’s salary), an almost unimaginable sum for a girl from JJ Nagar. The village is a six-hour drive from Coimbatore, the state’s second-largest city, but the prosperity of the new India and its almost double-digit growth rate hasn’t arrived here.

So when the agent came by Sivagami’s house, she and her friend Sathya made a snap decision to go. Sivagami was just 14, Sathya was 18, and they knew their parents would disapprove. “She just left without really discussing it with us,” her mother recalls. “She and Sathya both took off.” (Like many Indians, Sivagami has no last name.) For two days, no one in the village could locate the girls.

As it turns out, they were just about 12 kilometers away at a company called Saravana Polythreads. “Her father and I went and visited her,” her mother says. “She told us she didn’t want to study anymore, she wanted to work in the factory.”

JJ Nagar sits in the shadow of the stunning Western Ghats mountains, surrounded by coconut trees and lush rice paddies. No one in the village owns any of the surrounding fields, though. The best that most of the residents can hope for is a job picking crops, as both of Sivagami’s parents do. When there is work, they can earn the equivalent of $2.40 per day. The worst-case scenario is life as a manual scavenger, cleaning the latrines of members of the higher castes. People in JJ Nagar don’t have high expectations. They are members of the Arunthathiyar community, considered outcasts among outcasts.

The Hindu caste system is deeply codified. The Rigveda, a text that dates to between 1100 and 1700 B.C., establishes the varnas, a social order that explains that the four major caste groups are the sum of the parts of a man named Purusha, who sacrificed his body to create humanity. The Brahmans, the priests, were grafted from his head; Kshatriyas (kings, rulers, and warriors) from his hands; and the Vaishyas (traders and farmers) from his thighs. The Shudras, artisans and laborers, are banned from hearing certain religious texts. They are believed to have come from Purusha’s feet. Below the Shudras are Dalit communities like the Arunthathiyar, who don’t belong to any of the four varnas. In Mahatma Gandhi’s day, they were called untouchables. Gandhi attempted to popularize the term “children of god.”

These days, they are commonly called Dalits, which roughly translates from Hindi as “the broken people.” The Arunthathiyar are just one of many Dalit communities in India. Dalits are traditionally expected to perform unsavory tasks like disposing of dead bodies and cleaning bathrooms. Most live in abject poverty. The Musahar community of Bihar in Northern India, for example, has gained notoriety for eating rats to survive.

Dalits and tribals, a blanket term for indigenous people who live outside of mainstream Indian society and traditionally don’t practice Hinduism, comprise about a quarter of India’s almost 1.2 billion people. After India’s independence from England in 1947 and Gandhi’s subsequent movement for greater equality, they were granted reservations, spots in universities, and set-asides in employment in an attempt to correct historic discrimination. The practice is similar to affirmative action in the United States.

Despite the progress India has made, the legacy of caste remains its most intractable problem. Those at the bottom of the caste structure “are denied access to land, clean water, and education, left out by the recent modernization process and surge in economic growth, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and higher caste groups,” according to a recent statement from the organization Human Rights Watch.

In Tamil Nadu, a state that is perhaps India’s most economically forward—a leader in exports of cars, clothing, and electronics—there is also a way out. Dalits and other lower-caste communities of Sivagami’s generation form the core of the manufacturing labor force. In the state’s special economic zones, this has led to a burgeoning labor movement that has pushed back against multinational companies, like Foxconn and Nokia, that have a presence there. But for the most marginalized communities, who frequently work in the garment industry, exploitation is still too common.

For Sivagami, trading a life in the fields for a job in a factory should have been considered progress. In some ways it was. Sivagami made friends—girls from all over Tamil Nadu. For meals, they were mostly served idlis (rice and lentil dumplings) and dosas (long, thin crepes made from the same batter), two low-cost South Indian vegetarian staples. While it was the first time in Sivagami’s life she’d had three squares a day, the diet didn’t provide enough protein to keep pace with the workload.

Sivagami, now 19, is slight and shy. It’s early November 2011 when we meet in the hard-packed mud yard of the small brick-and-thatch home she shares with her family. She is dressed in a pink salwar kameez, the traditional tunic-and-pants set. She seems resigned.

The routine at Saravana Polythreads was grueling. Despite the state of Tamil Nadu mandating eight-hour workdays, there were just two shifts at the factory: a day shift from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and a night shift from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Sivagami was placed on the day shift. Most of the time, she was tasked with spinning yarn onto a big paper coil. Sometimes, for a change of pace, she got to clean out the machinery. Sundays were her only day off. Lunch and dinner breaks were just 30 minutes long. The doors of the dormitory where they slept were locked from the outside at night. “When I felt tired, sometimes they would send me to my room,” Sivagami says. But “if you left the shift early to go back to your room they deducted money from the day’s wage.”

Life at the factory grew progressively worse. The girls were hired under a program called the sumangali scheme. In Tamil, the word sumangali refers to a single girl becoming a respectable woman through marriage. Agents peddle the scheme by dangling a payout large enough to cover a girl’s dowry or to buy enough gold to wear at her marriage. In September 2010, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant reported that girls were essentially locked in factories and working as bonded laborers. For clothing companies doing business in the garment clusters of Western Tamil Nadu, the fallout was massive. H&M canceled several contracts with local factories in response to the story.

Sivagami’s friend Sathya reached her limit halfway through their term. “It was really hard,” says Sathya, now 23. “I had to stand up 12 hours a day. I felt tired, my eyes were hurting, and my legs were hurting, so I left.”

One day in August 2010, Sivagami was cleaning fabric waste out of a machine. Unbeknownst to her, a coworker was still operating it. Her arm got caught and locked in the machine’s belt. “It took about an hour to take my arm out because they didn’t realize how to unwind the belt,” Sivagami says. She shattered her forearm, elbow bone, and part of her hand. She was in a cast for a month. A scar runs the length of her forearm.

The factory’s managers paid Sivagami’s medical bills, but the accident further complicated her relationship with her parents. “We’re not happy because she went to the factory instead of studying and now she injured her arm,” her mother says. Though Sivagami came back to work after six weeks, she had a lot of time to make up. Due to the injury and her frequent bouts of exhaustion, the factory informed her that if she hoped to receive her bonus, she’d have to work an extra year.

After four years at Saravana, Sivagami finally concluded her service on October 26. She received her payout, but the company neglected to put any money into her provident fund, the Indian government retirement plan for which they deducted money from every check. Sivagami says that the factory has made some small changes since her injury. “They used to have female workers taking out the waste without turning off the machine,” she says. “And now they are turning off the machine and they have the male workers to do the job.”

She is thinking about getting married and excited about the prospect of returning to work. “I want to go to a similar job but with modern machinery,” she says. “I am experienced.”

* * *


When Sathya walked out of Saravana Polythreads in 2009, she was aided by an Arunthathiyar NGO called READ (Rights, Education and Development Centre. Sathya later got a job at READ, where she met Veran, the man who is now her husband. Last summer, she left READ and had a baby girl.

Sathya is one of the luckier people in JJ Nagar. According to READ, there are still 146 people cleaning human excrement by hand. The stigma of this archaic practice extends to their children, who are often tasked with cleaning toilets at school, perpetuating the cycle.

In recent years, there has been a lot of progress for Dalits. There are now Dalit tycoons, chief ministers, and prominent academics. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Dalits and other marginalized groups like Muslims (many of whom are Dalits who converted from Hinduism) wield tremendous electoral power. Milind Kamble, a Dalit who runs a construction company in Maharashtra, has taken advantage of set-asides for Dalits to score lucrative infrastructure contracts. He also chairs the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose motto is
“be job givers, instead of job seekers.”

Still, India is a long way from fulfilling the promises of equal protection under law enshrined in its constitution, which was written by B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit with degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. “In India there are two constitutions: the Indian Constitution, written by Ambedkar, and there is the unwritten constitution, the Hindu religion, their constitution,” says R. Karuppusamy, a 39-year-old Arunthathiyar man with a master’s degree in sociology who founded READ and has dedicated his life to empowering his community.

Every Sunday, Indian newspapers feature ads placed by parents looking to arrange their daughters’ marriages that explicitly state which caste they are willing to accept. The darker side of this obsession is the more than 5,000 honor killings every year, generally perpetrated by family members who are angry that a daughter has brought shame to a family by marrying a lower-caste man.

Having an honest conversation about caste is difficult when the system pervades all strata of Indian life. The discourse is further stifled by language. The language of government and the elite media is English, which most Indians can neither read nor speak.

Karuppusamy still sees only token gains in Indian society. He cites the lack of Dalit leadership in the leading Indian National Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “Even the Communist party, the politburo, this buro, that buro. Where are the Dalit in that thing? We are 25 percent in India. They are using [us as] only a vote bank.”

Educating girls like Sathya and Sivagami, who are often the first in their families to attend school, is fraught with challenges. “Government schools don’t have a friendly approach,” Karuppusamy says. School is an uncomfortable topic for Sivagami. When asked about her decision to drop out at age 12, she demurs and giggles uncomfortably.

“I had troubles in school,” she says. “Even though I tried, I didn’t get it.”

* * *

READ’s offices are on a pleasant middle-class lane, just off a main road in a small city called Sathyamangalam. Karuppusamy was lucky to get the place. For a long time no one wanted to rent to a Dalit. After someone committed suicide in the building, the Brahman landlords felt that the structure was cursed. He got a good deal on rent, he tells me, laughing. Dalit activists, academics, and intellectuals take great pleasure in mocking Brahman superstitions, like the prohibition on eating meat.

On this day, Karuppusamy has convened a meeting of the Arunthathiyar Human Rights Forum, a coalition of activists from around Western Tamil Nadu. One of the activists, a small man from nearby Coimbatore, approaches me and introduces himself. He seems uncertain and diverts his gaze from me as we shake hands. The encounter encapsulates Karuppusamy’s biggest challenge: how to instill a sense of self-worth in a people who have been systematically dehumanized for millennia?

READ, with just four employees, has established alternative structures for empowerment. In its community banking program, a collective of Arunthathiyar women pool their savings in a single bank account. They earn interest, which is then made available for low-interest small-business loans or for emergencies. Through another program that rescues children from forced labor in agriculture, textiles, and local tea shops, READ provides them a year of remedial schooling before enrolling them in formal school. Karuppusamy is also campaigning to end manual scavenging. “India will be a superpower country, they are saying,” he tells me on the car ride from JJ Nagar to his office. “They have a 10-year plan, a five-year plan. But they do not stop manual scavenging. Why have they not stopped it?”

For many Dalits, though, there are far more immediate challenges, like where they will find their next meal. One of the reasons that Sathya was able to leave Saravana Polythreads while Sivagami was not, Karuppusamy says, it that there are three daughters in Sivagami’s family, adding pressure to earn money. “That is why she completed four years."

* * *

Sivagami finally got a new job. She is living at her parents’ home and working at a T-shirt factory in Tirupur, a little less than an hour’s drive away. “The bus comes every day to her village,” Karuppusamy reports. “She is happy. She is living.” She is, however, still looking for a husband.

Karuppusamy has also made some progress in his effort to end exploitation of Dalits in local clothing factories. He recently convened a meeting of NGOs, clothing factories, the companies they supply, and former sumangali workers. All sides agreed to work to end the sumangali scheme. They also pledged to stop employing girls less than 18 years old.

For Sivagami, this is good news. She doesn’t want other girls to suffer. “I think I was too young to work,” she says.

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