The everydayness of a Dalit single mother in a pandemic

By Shruti Sinha

Ranchi: On the issues and hopes that Anita Das has as a tribal woman earning her own livelihood while raising twins.

Anita is twenty eight. She’s also a Dalit single mother – from Gumla district in Jharkhand. She came to Ranchi eight years ago, in search of a better livelihood. She works as a domestic help at various homes for over eight hours a day. Living in a small one room-kitchen with her two kids named Rajesh and Kushi, her day breaks at 4 am with bun and tea and she’s on the way to her work by 6 am. When all the work is done, she eats her lunch at the corner of the kitchen – and finishes it in minutes – to take a small break from a tiring schedule. On odd days, when Anita takes a walk around the premises while taking a break, she is invariably asked questions by people right from the guard’s wife to the caretakers residing in the society premises.

Jharkhand is the sixteenth most populous and culturally rich state in India and yet, dalit women here are faced with the burdens of economic deprivation making them a vulnerable group. 

Anita’s story is no different. She has to leave her six year old twins at home so she makes sure to cook their breakfast and lunch – early in the morning – before going to work. She has worked on this schedule for many years. But in 2019, the outbreak of Covid-19 in India left the lives of vulnerable sections of the society in shackles. Communities like that of Anita’s were the ones to have faced the brunt of it. Early March, when our government announced an uncalculated nationwide lockdown across the country, it led to half of the communities being jobless, hungry, and mostly unsafe. When asked how Anita is doing nowadays, she says, “Life comes at us in waves. But working through is the way out.” In the wake of the pandemic, Anita visited countless homes, societies in search of work. 

I ask Anita about caste discrimination she has faced while working before the pandemic and to this date and she tells me, “I have different experiences in different houses. I work in four houses, from different castes, but none of them treat me or my children differently,” 

“Yet, one of these families once, a rich upper caste still practice caste discrimination. Working as a housekeeper for them, the people in the family were very prohibitive about what I can touch and maintained a separate utensil for me to eat food and drink water in,” she adds hesitatingly. That’s not the end of the story, however. “They blamed me, pointed out that we are spreading the virus, and even stopped me from entering the house one day, last year. It felt as if, I was being punished for being born a Dalit. 

According to the 2011 provisional report of the Census of India government, the number of Dalits in the country has been calculated as 16.6% of the total population. In the same report, the population of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in Jharkhand has increased from 2,23,336 in 2001 to 2,92,359, around 30.9%. As reported by Hindustan Times, “Jharkhand has 32 tribal groups, of which eight tribes – Asur, Birhor, Birjia, Korwa, Mal Paharia, Pahariya, Sauria Paharia, and Savar— are from PVTG. 

As mentioned in the annual report of 2020-21, by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in India, PVTG people are eligible for benefits of the schemes like health infrastructure, education facility, lighting and funds granted – as well as of such schemes aimed at only the tribal groups in the States.  Moreover, the measures taken by the Government of India especially towards the development of the communities might have reached heights. But in Jharkhand, where people are still suffering and what is shown is often not as functional. On being asked if she’s ever felt subjected to inhumane behaviour, she tells me, “There’s no point in earning with dignity because the shops in and around my place don’t sell us commodities.”

Anita’s story is still an exception of sorts, for she’s been able to build herself a modest life. Earning around 8000 rupees per month, she hopes to send her children to school by the end of this year. “Even though the hope is bleak right now, I’m working towards a better life for Rajesh and Khushi.”