From the moment we stepped out of the airport in Ahmedabad, India, the city offered up a sensory overload. Cows, monkeys and the occasional elephant in the street, the smell of burning trash, and the hustle-bustle traffic on the ride to our hotel formed our first impression of the place where we would spend the next five weeks.
While in Ahmedabad we have engaged with the concept of caste through our class lectures, on site visits, and in conversations with the many Ahmedabadis we have met along the way.
We read extensive literature on the Indian caste system as part of our coursework. In our Culture and Society (C&S) lectures with our travelling faculty, Carmen Medeiros, we learned that the caste system is far more complicated than any textbook would allow us to see. It is a hierarchical societal organization system based on occupation. The more that your work involves using your hands – the dirtier and more physical it is, the lower on the caste system you are. It divides the population into four labor oriented groups; with the most “pure” at the top and most “polluted” at the bottom. Then there is a group that falls almost outside of the hierarchy – the bottom of the bottom – the ones called “Untouchables” because higher castes are literally unable to touch these people.
In our C&S discussions we reflected that caste is almost racialized. It is seen as part of your biology. It is hereditary—the work your parents’ do will most likely be the work you do. The difficulty of breaking away from this inequality that been institutionalized for over 3,000 years overwhelmed us.
In our Politics and Development class with our travelling faculty, Juan Arbona, and in both formal and informal lectures from our brilliant country coordinators, Sonal and Persis, we further explored this issue. We learned that India’s grand Constitution states that no individual should be discriminated based on caste and makes the practice of “Untouchability” forbidden.
We learned that Dalits experienced caste discrimination in rural villages and migrated to Ahmedabad, in search of employment and a better life. Many workers found upon arriving to the city that because of their minimal education level, the only work they could do was clean. And so they became sanitation workers employed by the city to sweep streets, collect trash from door to door, and maintain manholes.
According to the sanitation employees we spoke with, they received minimal protective gear and tools for cleaning, and are only temporal subcontracted workers with minimal workers’ rights. According to a city solid waste management official, sanitation workers are provided with protective gear and tools, yet workers choose not to use the gear. We also spoke with street vendors and construction workers who encounter the same issues.
Our experience has been polarizing as we have studied the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project in our Urban Planning and Sustainable Development class (UP&SE) with Juan. We got the chance to talk to the people involved with the project such as urban planners and developers. As well as the people affected by the project such as slum dwellers nearby the river and vendors who have been selling for 600 years on the riverfront. The lower caste people are being relocated outside the city and their land is being reclaimed to build new residential apartments and hotels. The slum dwellers are being relocated into areas that lack resources like clean water and schools. The people working have a difficult time as they are farther away from their jobs and now have commute for longer when before they were within walking distance.
As students, we were challenged to see the agency within the poor conditions that many people face in India. Juan, told us, “You see, American students have the tendency of feeling bad, of traveling abroad and victimizing people abroad.” Not this time. Juan challenged us to think deeply and see agency even in one of the most marginalized groups in India.
Our time in India has come to a close and now we prepare for new experiences and challenges in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We will carry on what we have learned in Ahmedabad and see how the issues in South America’s biggest city compares and contrasts.