Last night we flew from Chennai to Madurai, which is more inland towards the west. The car that I travelled in to the hotel wasn’t air conditioned so we drove along with the windows down. A warm, balmy breeze blew in our faces and the air was full of strange, exotic smells. I have only been here 4 days but it feels much longer as we have seen so much.
The India that I have seen so far is not a peaceful, tranquil place. It is noisy and crammed with people. We drove through villages that just seemed to run into one another, all of them heaving as the locals went about their business. It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is or what day it is, everyone seems to be going somewhere.
The driving was as chaotic in Madurai as it was in Delhi and Chennai – a constant barrage of horns and flashing lights. There must be some sort of driving code but I’ve no idea what it is. Who dares wins perhaps. Every street was littered with rubbish, there are no street cleaners in India and it is truly shocking to see how much filth and waste is lying about.
Cows wandered down the road, some were tied up at the side. I have seen more cows in the city than in the country.
At one point we drove past a field where a body was burning on a funeral pyre with just one lone man standing beside it.
At 5am this morning I was woken by the sound of devotional music being blasted in the corridors of the hotel.
The horn blasting started up then too so 5am is obviously getting up time here.
We spent the day with our partner Arogya Agam, meaning Place of Health.
AA works with marginalized and excluded people on human rights issues and community health projects.
These marginalized people tend to be from lower castes such as Dalits and can also be subgroups within these castes.
We went to visit some Dalit families – there is a type of caste system within the Dalit caste and the families we visited were one of the lowest in the system. I have seen poverty before on TV but I still wasn’t prepared for the shock of seeing how these people live.
They live in either one roomed shacks or one roomed houses. The shacks are basically bits of wood tied together with a roof of dried branches and leaves. Most of the one roomed houses have suffered storm damage and are unsafe to live in. Those that are lived in are shared by 4 families. All the houses leak so when it rains the families sleep outside in case the roof caves in.
We asked the woman’s representative what their biggest issues were and she said they had no burial ground. As they are Dalits and are considered ‘untouchable’, they cannot bury their dead alongside any other community . If anyone dies they have to find a ditch or a bit of unidentified land to bury them in.
They told us that they get about 60 days of work a year as agricultural labourers for dominant castes.
The men earn 250 rupees a day (just over 3 pounds) and the women 100 rupees a day (about 80p).
This money has to last them all year – it has to feed and clothe them and pay for everything else they might need.
They mostly live on a diet of rice porridge. All of them were thin and we could see signs of malnutrition among some of the women. There is no primary health care in the village.
They have a few scrawny cows and goats which they rely on for milk. All the animals live alongside them. There is no electricity and their homes are dark even during the day. They get water from a common tap but there are no toilet facilities, they have to go into the trees. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to live day after day in these conditions.
Arogya Agam is working with this community and others to help them campaign for their rights. These communities are being discriminated against – they do not get access to the same services as higher castes, they cannot get work because of their caste and they are excluded from most basic amenities because of their caste. The self help groups and Federations that have been set up as a result of AA’s work, show that this is the best way forward to create lasting change. These groups not only make change happen they also help the Dalit community feel better about themselves.
It was difficult to see how those families lived but it has made me and my team even more determined to support these communities and it has also made me very grateful for the things I take for granted.