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Social change in India

Miranda Kennedy Jul 3, 2006

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: It has been a hot summer in Indian politics. The issue generating most heat is affirmative action. The jobs of many Indians are restricted by their caste, particularly the most deprived group, the so-called “untouchables.” But as Miranda Kennedy reports, that’s starting to change.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Nisha is an Untouchable, from the Gujjar caste. Traditionally people of this caste collect garbage. But Nisha works in a kitchen in Bombay. She’s squatting on the floor, her sari hitched up to her knees. She identifies herself so completely with her caste that when you ask her name, she says:

NISHA: Kailash Nisha Gujjar. Gujjar.

Kailash is her husband’s first name, Nisha is her given name, and she uses her caste as her last name.

Her husband belongs to the same caste, and so does pretty much everyone she knows. Nisha never went to school. When she got married at 17 she was expected to take her mother-in-law’s job as a cleaner. Nisha became the fourth generation of Untouchable women to work here, in the home of the Wagle family. They’re well-to-do Brahmins, the highest caste.

NISHA [interpreter]: When my family first started working for this family, we were forbidden to enter the house. We collected their garbage so Brahmins considered us impure. And if an Untouchable was allowed inside, she’d have to sweep herself out of the room.

But that extreme discrimination has changed now in many urban Indian homes. In this house it’s changed so drastically that five years ago the Wagles hired Nisha to do the job that Brahmins consider most sacred: cook their food.

Nisha’s boss, Gayatri Wagle, says back in her grandmother’s day, that would have been unthinkable.

GAYATRI WAGLE: You didn’t allow Untouchables to come into the house, and that’s the way everybody behaved, and so she behaved that way. But when mum got married and she became the head of the house, so to speak, she felt that it was alright for her to come into the house, and by then a lot of other people were doing it.

Now the family pays Nisha triple what they paid her as a cleaner — about $70 a month. But for Nisha, the change is about more than the money.

NISHA [interpreter]: When they offered me the job of cook, I said, Are you sure you want to have an Untouchable in the kitchen? When they said yes, it felt good. And now my family and my community treat me with more respect.

Nisha says that’s probably because she doesn’t do traditional Gujjar work anymore. But she’s the exception to the rule among Untouchables. Her husband still makes a pittance working as a garbage collector, and so does almost everyone else she knows.

In Bombay, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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