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Title:Covid-19 Brings Back India’s Caste Discrimination Against Dalit Untouchables

Millions of migrant workers made arduous journeys to their villages after India imposed the world's largest coronavirus lockdown in March. Back in the rural hinterland, many say caste discrimination is reversing even the small economic and social gains they eked out in the cities. In the village of Aston, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Raju Banskar, 33, says the double stigma of coming from a lower caste and having traveled from New Delhi where the coronavirus is spreading has made it impossible to find a job. In the city, construction work fueled by India's decades long economic boom brought him 250 rupees to 300 rupees ($3-$4) a day, and few paid attention to his caste. But building sites shut down when Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the nationwide lockdown to contain the virus. Back home, Banskar says work created through government jobs programs are mostly allocated by the village headman to upper caste workers. “I have no land, so had left my village some 12 years ago in search of work and to escape this system where I am considered untouchable,” Banskar said by phone. “I have come back to the same situation that I left, in fact it has only become worse.” People from lower castes were historically not allowed to touch those from higher castes, and Banskar says many of these practices remain in his village. As India's economy leapfrogged from just over 1% GDP growth in 1991 to the range of 10% in the fiscal year ending March 2007, millions like Banskar moved from villages to cities to work. Affirmative action policies such as the reservations of jobs, spots in schools and the legislature helped many overcome centuries of economic deprivation and social oppression. Fallouts from the virus are now reversing some of those advances. While the pandemic has destroyed livelihoods worldwide, leaving people from New York to London to Mumbai without jobs, some of the biggest hits are likely to be taken by families in countries like India that have few social safety nets. The World Bank estimates India's lockdown will push 12 million people into abject poverty. Many may never recover. Despite reforms over the decades, those perceived as being on the lowest rungs of the caste ladder still regularly face discrimination and violence from upper castes. And groups like Dalits continue to be among India's poorest. Traditionally disadvantaged subgroups such as rural dwellers, lower castes and tribes, Muslims, and young children were still the poorest in fiscal year 2015-2016, according to a study by the University of Oxford and others. The discrimination the migrants describe isn't new. According to a 2010 study on social discrimination by Oxfam India, a New Delhi-based NGO, Dalits, tribal groups, and Muslims are highly under- represented in better paid and higher status jobs, while they are disproportionately concentrated among those with lower wages in the informal sector. That's the area that's been hit the worst during the pandemic, making those from lower castes more likely to fall back into severe poverty. Sunil Kumar Chaurasia, program officer, with Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra , a non-profit organization headquartered in northern state of Uttar Pradesh said it is mostly Dalits who suffer as they do not have the connections upper caste people have. Dalits are mostly uneducated and unaware of their rights or government schemes and hence can't access facilities, he said. Women are particularly sharply hit because they are often responsible for picking up food and water, and some migrant returnees said they wait for hours at the village tap because upper caste families get access first. In Aston village, Krishna Ahirwar, 22, returned from New Delhi along with her husband and toddler and is staying in a separate locality where Dalits have historically lived. Landless, with no ration card -- the government document required to get food aid - she's found it hard to arrange for food. “We are thinking about whether to go back to the city,” Ahirwar said. But returning to the city isn't easy. India has reported 2.8 million coronavirus cases, making the risk of contagion particularly high in crowded cities. Subscribe to our YouTube channel: QUICKTAKE ON SOCIAL: Follow QuickTake on Twitter: Like QuickTake on Facebook: Follow QuickTake on Instagram: Subscribe to our newsletter: Email us at QuickTake by Bloomberg is a global news network delivering up-to-the-minute analysis on the biggest news, trends and ideas for a new generation of leaders.


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