Many members of the Dalit community live in a semi-arid area bordering the Great Indian Desert in western Rajasthan. Water there has always been scarce and with the threat of climate change, it could get worse. In addition to this Dalits have to deal with another issue: they are discriminated against and occupy the lowest position in India’s rigid caste-based society.
A name that has become synonymous with “Untouchables”, Dalits are deprived of access to public amenities such as fountains or wells. Arno Coerver of Malteser International, the worldwide relief agency of the Order of Malta, explains: “They have to walk for hours to get to the nearest source of water, and they are afraid of going there, because they know they will be humiliated and ostracised”.
This scarcity of natural resources, combined with discrimination and lack of access to public services, creates a vicious cycle of poverty and exclusion for the Dalits. This is especially true for Dalit women, who are responsible for the labour-intensive task of fetching water for their families. This task claims much time and effort, which they could use to generate income – water at home would give women the means to access the wage market and become self-sufficient.
In order to break this vicious cycle, Malteser International and Unnati, a local partner organisation, are tackling the roots of the problem on three different fronts. First, they give technical support to the communities and help them build their own rainwater reservoirs, so that water is available locally. Next, they give women the know-how to start using that water to plant vegetable gardens, which can be used to increase the family’s own nutrition or to generate income by selling the surplus at local markets. Finally, they help women to empower themselves, giving them the knowledge and the tools they need to gain access to vital social services.
In this way, Malteser International wants not only to help end discrimination against Dalits, but also provide them with practical, sustainable solutions that improve their lives and the environment they live in, helping them to cope with frequent droughts and even more, to protect their dignity.
Photos © Carmen Wolf