India: Video Volunteers highlight fate of 'untouchables'

While the caste system has been formally abolished under the Indian constitution, there is still discrimination and prejudice against Dalits across South Asia.
Daniel Berehulak

NEW DELHI, India — A crowd shouts in panic as men pull a limp sanitation worker out of the burbling sewer. He does not regain consciousness, and the worker's arms flop loosely as a paramedic rolls him over and pumps his chest in a vain effort to resuscitate him.

A second man is pulled from the manhole and roughly hosed down before anyone will help him. The casual brutality of the rescue effort is irrelevant. Both sewer workers are already dead — killed by an “untouchable” job.

The scene is a gruesome one, but not uncommon. Like nearly all of India's sewer workers, these men were Dalits, or members of the group once known as “untouchable.” Untouchables were dubbed such because it was thought their bad karma condemned them to filthy jobs. Mere contact with them was thought to pollute to the soul.

Discriminating against Dalits has been ruled officially illegal. But the 2,000-year-old prejudice quietly continues, with Dalits often confined to their historical occupations, as well as barred from accessing community wells and temples. In extreme cases, they are paraded naked, forced to eat excrement or murdered when they object.

What is more remarkable than the nature of the disturbing scene described above is the fact that it was captured on video.

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If people are confronted with the harsh realities of Dalit life, will they fight for change? A relatively new nonprofit called Video Volunteers is hoping so.

By training activists from India's marginalized groups to become community journalists, and arming them with cameras to document various abuses, they are hoping to push for more equality among India's notoriously striated society and shame authorities into action.

In April, Video Volunteers launched an innovative documentary project called “Article 17,” after the law that rendered the practice of untouchability technically illegal in 1949 The project aims to document offenses, mobilize communities and generative more nuanced coverage in the mainstream media. 

“It is not easy documenting caste practices on camera, but the correspondents are natives and most belong to the Dalit community,” said Siddarth Pillai, Video Volunteers' communications manager. “They have intimate access and local knowledge that enables them to capture rare footage.”

So far, Video Volunteers correspondents have produced 22 two- to three-minute spots documenting the continued practice of untouchability across India, adding to a library of more than 500 short films made by the outfit's 100-odd full-time community producers.

Television networks CNN/IBN and NewsX have broadcast some of the videos on TV, while mainstream media outlets like Tehelka magazine and Youth Ki Awaaz have featured the videos on their websites. And in two months, the Article 17 campaign has generated more than 1,000 signatures for a petition urging the National Commission for Scheduled Castes to begin prosecuting offenses.

Not surprisingly, though, so far they've gotten the usual bureaucratic runaround, as a funny YouTube video demonstrates. And activists who are familiar with the workings of the system say that's about all they should expect.

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“The effect will be limited,” said Anoop Kumar, national coordinator of the Insight Foundation, another organization that fights for Dalit rights. “I have been dealing with the Scheduled Caste commission [the government body designated to protect Dalits] for the past decade. They always say they are serious. But they don't have the political will to take action.”

That said, Video Volunteers docs have beaten the odds in the past, and their activist-journalists aren't banking on the bureaucrats to make an impact. With the knowledge that documenting abuses is itself empowering, correspondents arrange community screenings, spread their stories by cell phone and use them to confront local authorities.

In many previous campaigns, they've made a difference. The organization's community journalists have produced more than 500 videos on topics ranging from child marriage to sexual harrassment to government corruption since it was founded by American Jessica Mayberry in 2003. Through outdoor screenings in slums and villages, they've reached an audience of more than 300,000 viewers. And more than 17,000 villagers and slumdwellers been spurred to action, helping more than 600,000 people, according to the non-profit's internal records.

For instance, a Video Volunteers film on India's Right to Information law encouraged slum dwellers in Mumbai to file a request for information about the amount of money spent on garbage collection in their area — an act that itself was enough to ensure a speedy cleanup. Another video documenting evidence that a government school was demanding bribes from parents in addition to the official fees resulted in the removal of the erring headmaster.

A village hotel was forced to rebuild its sewage system so that it didn’t empty into the village’s drinking water. The government re-opened a water treatment
plant and brought clean water to 3,000 people of one district after Video Volunteers' filmmakers exposed a high level of fluorine content in the local water supply.

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“Just saying untouchability is bad, or these people should be punished, is not going to help, because this problem is huge,” said the Insight Foundation's Kumar. “But once a Dalit becomes a little assertive politically, he is able to fight it back.”

In the video of the men who died in the sewer beneath the bustling streets of Ludhiana, Punjab, the next man down the manhole tells a Video Volunteers community correspondent.

“I feel bad, but I have to do this dirty work to earn a living. What can I do? I have to educate my children.”

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