Dalits weave new social fabric in Jodhpur

The Hindustan Times, 28th Sept. 2000
Amit Sengupta
(Phalodi (Jodhpur), September 27)

IN JUST about a decade, Dalit weavers in Phalodi of Jodhpur district have ushered in an invisible revolution which has changed the social structure of this drought-hit region of feudal Rajasthan.

So much so, the proud Rajputs, who till recently refused to accept water from the Dalits, are now coming to them to seek help. It could be for drought relief, their children's education, or a health programme. The barriers have broken: well, almost.

It all started during the 1987 drought, the severest in recent years. Sanjoy Ghosh (who was abducted by the ULFA in Assam in 1997), set up self-reliant co-operatives across the desert with Urmul, the voluntary organisation he founded. He went looking for weavers who could utilise the roomfuls of excess wool following the relief programme and found himself at Phaludi, 160 km from Bikaner.

The weavers here belong to the Meghwal caste, the lowest in the hierarchy. Those days they used to just about survive, making shawls using traditional motifs. They would then travel to the interiors to sell their labour of love, while working for the rich farmers' to pay off ancient debts.

Five tentative weavers took the first step. They set up a design venture with Urmul's help. Gradually, they set up a chain of educational and health centres, which has now become the lifeline of the region.

The Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti weaves a range of exquisite handicrafts. With the middlemen gone, their work sells all over India. Their co-operative is a no-profit, no-loss venture, where every extra rupee is shared.

And what do they do with this extra rupee? They started 13 schools where the upper castes send their children now. "Class V pass" Ramchandra Bharupal, who does the accounts and marketing for the co-operative, say

s: "When I first went to recruit teachers, the Rajputs told me to sit on the ground and I did. But today, I sit wherever I want".

During the drought this summer, the weavers organised massive relief programmes. With help from donors, they supplied fodder, food and water.

The Dalits have also evolved a reformist code of conduct for the community: total prohibition, end to child marriage, compulsory education for all children, no caste discrimination in public places, cooking for men and family planning a must, and women's participation in all decision-making processes.

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