August 23rd, 2021
By Shaukat Korai
Six year old Dhanwati, is wandering the streets of Chaneser Goth, one of the oldest settlements in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Unlike other children her age, Dhanwati is street wise and confident. With her short, jagged hair and rough clothes, she looks more like a boy than a girl. She is standing in a crowd of people who are shouting out to her to show more of her stunts and tricks. Dhanwati is a street performer. Some tricks and dancing steps later, she asks them to compensate with no more than a gesture of her hand. Most people filter away at that point disinterestedly. Some give her coins. After all, how much money would a six year old need?
But the one reason why Dhanwati does not go to school is because her family cannot bear her educational expenses, thanks to a terrible financial situation. So now she wanders the streets of the run-down locality, and manages to earn a few coins for her own pocket money. For Dhanwati, school is a mystery. She has little idea what it is like. She is not even clear why she does not go to school, and is not sure that she even wants to. For most of her life she has seen the same kind of atmosphere: her parents are uneducated; her father Ashok Kumar collects scraps and earns just the daily expenses for his family.
According to the latest census, conducted in 2017, approximately one million people were counted from the Dalit community in Pakistan, most of them living in Sindh, especially Tharparkar. A chunk of these – approximately more than 15,000 of them are dwelling in Karachi’s dilapidated, ramshackle houses in the Hindu Para locality of Chaneser Goth. Their houses are surrounded by stinking garbage, while their neighbourhoods are a network of extremely narrow streets – not even fit for the children to play in. But because the houses are cramped, groups of children are seen wandering or playing outside.
Residents of the Goth say that hardly two percent of children go to primary school. The dropout rates are high and most of them leave before even completing their primary education, only because of extreme poverty and also discrimination. At an early age, children are on the streets and begin work there, encountering all the issues that street children face, including exploitation, violence or abuse.
Most of the men in the Dalit community work on daily wages doing menial jobs like janitors, sweepers, sanitary workers, or as office boys and housekeeping or cleaning cars at traffic signals. The women – if not doing similar blue collar work – beg for survival in the urban areas.
Dalits are declared as ‘scheduled castes’ in Pakistan since 1957 by the Presidential Ordinance. Around 57 castes are enlisted under scheduled castes including Meghwar, Kohli, Bheel, Bagree, etc.
But rare documentation is available on Dalits. In 2007, with a joint initiative of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies and the International Dalit Solidarity Network team, a research study was carried out on the status of Dalits titled “Long behind Scheduled” which was conducted within the four districts two of Punjab – Rahim Yar Khan, and Bahawalpur, and two in Sindh – Tharparkar and Umerkot – districts where Dalits are concentrated.
According to the research, the scheduled castes are the single largest group of victims of caste-based discrimination including untouchability. They are the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized even within marginalized sections of society. As citizens, they face dual disadvantages – first as being part of the minority Hindu community who already face discrimination as a whole; and then as a minority within the Hindus.
Even within the Hindus, Dalits are known as “Achhoots” or the untouchables. The research survey has revealed that 87 percent of the scheduled caste women are completely illiterate.
Zulifiqar Ali Shah, currently working with Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), led a team, which carried out a research titled “Long Behind Dalits”. He talks about the findings of this study: scheduled castes are severely oppressed in Pakistan; their terrible economic condition is a major cause of their plight.
“It is because they are Dalits that is why they are suffering from these financial conditions and discrimination,” says Shah.
“Pakistan has one of the highest dropout rates at primary as well as at secondary school level, but with Dalits the situation is even worse. There is no specific effort in place to provide education to children of the scheduled castes,” he says.
Statistics of his research show that 74 percent scheduled castes are illiterate (in these four districts). A total of 15 percent have only passed primary education, followed by only four percent with middle class education and another four percent that have done only their Matriculation. Only one percent of the scheduled castes are graduates with only a few lucky ones having post-graduate degrees. The literacy ratio among scheduled caste is almost the same regardless of their location – even if they are in the urban centre of Karachi.
Statistics obtained from the 2017 census shows that the literacy rate of Umerkot and Tharparkar is only 35.07 percent and 29.78 percent respectively. Among the young population between 10 to 13 years boys are 48.36 percent and girls are 20.87 percent (Umerkot), while in Tharparkar, boys are 41.95 and girls are 16.1 percent.
Shah says, it is not only that the Schedule Castes cannot send their children to school and college. “They are poor but a discriminatory attitude on the part of both teachers and students, puts a psychological barrier,” he explains. “Our findings revealed that it was a common complaint that teachers were harsh with scheduled caste students. They use derogatory language and humiliate students with corporal punishments; their classmates also taunt and tease Dalit children because of their poverty – they are barefoot and are dressed in rags; they are given separate glasses for drinking water and separate desks for sitting in the classrooms,” said Shah.
He added that Dalits were also landless and shelter less residents of Pakistan, who were facing numerous problems like social ostracization, caste discrimination, untouchability, forced conversion, illiteracy and poverty. Among Dalit communities of Bagri, Kohli and Bheel castes there is zero percent literacy rate and they mostly travel for earnings and some of these begging, added Shah. Their problems of extreme poverty, caste discrimination are ignored at large by the state, he said.
Gaghee, 60, also from Chaneser Goth, is sitting worried in her home because lockdown imposed in the city after the fourth COVID wave has stopped her from leaving her home. Now her sole worry is about earning her bread-and-butter for her family, which she gets through begging. Gaghee wanders the streets and markets of the city begging away but lockdown has forced her back inside.
“Almost all the women of this locality are begging because there is no other way to survive,” she says. “We are not educated nor are we skilled. To survive, there is little else we can do except begging. We hardly earn more than 400 Rupees a day.”
For Gaghee and her family, the first wave of COVID-19 was the worst. It confined her at home for two and half months and often times they had to sleep without food. Once the provincial government representatives shared ration with them which they served only once a month.
Hairan, 70, who is an activist for resolving the issues of his Dalit community, works as a tailor in Chaneser Goth. He says that there is no way to pull themselves out from poverty but ourselves. “Dalits are not treated equally by any other citizens of the country,” he says. “Our people have no healthy sources of earning as they just earn to survive. So how can they afford the expenses of their children?”
We are worst victims here, he laments.
“Dalit men are working on wages and women are begging; this is our life. What can we do? Who wants to live a life like this? There is just no way out it seems,” says the dejected Hairan.
Nand Lal, a native of Lyari, another one of Karachi’s oldest localities, was kidnapped twice only because he stood against forced conversions.
Speaking about the plight of the Dalits, he takes a long sigh, and remarks, “What can I say? Our community has faced countless problems. We are being treated as third-fourth-class citizens. Our community is ignored as a result of which we are pushed in the quagmire of poverty; there is so much illiteracy among Dalits. Forced conversions among us are at a shocking level and many have tried to leave their ancestral homes in Pakistan and flee to neighbouring India, with around 100 to 200 families settled in Gujrat,” he claims.
Nand Lal says that persecution and poverty have compelled children to set aside their childhood and education and instead work to earn livelihood. In such a situation how is it possible to receive education?
He reveals he was kidnapped around seven or eight years ago from Lyari, when the area was ruled by gang-war criminals.
“They had kidnaped some girls from our community, and had converted them forcibly,” he says. “I was very vocal about that, because of which they kidnapped me. Sadly, the State is not on our side which is why all this is happening.”
Lal said, that incident traumatized his family. “My wife lives in fear all the time,” he says.
He says that hardly two percent of Dalit children get education while the rest work on low paid labour in tough conditions.
“It is hard to get good education in such circumstances, if somebody gets good education then it is not possible to get good employment,” he explained.
Zulfiqar Shah says that Dalits end up working in low paid jobs especially in rural areas where they work in agriculture land as bonded labourers and as beggars in urban areas.
He believes that state should take special measures for Dalit’s future and should help them to have a steady and sustainable income.