NHRC to the rescue of Orissa’s Dalit families

New Delhi, Feb 16 (IANS) In a move that will offer some relief to Dalit families in Orissa’s Puri district and motivate others to speak up against injustice, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has ordered the district collector to take action within the next 15 days in 1,000 cases of caste based atrocities.

Acting on a complaint by a Dalit washerman, Kallu Sethi of Shantipur village in Puri, the apex human rights body called the district collector and the secretary of the Panchayati Raj for a hearing along with Sethi in the capital Tuesday.

Sethi, who addressed the press Monday, narrated the atrocities that the upper caste subjected his family and others to. His family was especially at the receiving end of torture because he and his brothers applied and got a piece of land under the government scheme for the landless Dalit community.

Sethi is a victim of the ‘bartan’ system in which a person belonging to a lower caste can only work as a barber or a washerman, rendering service to the higher caste – not for money, but for just 15 kg of paddy per year. He approached an NGO for help which in turn directed the case to the NHRC.

While the NHRC directed the state government to look into the matter in December 2008, the state responded saying that the bartan system does not exist there.

Undeterred, Sethi again approached the NHRC and was finally called here for an open court hearing.

Parvinder Singh of ActionAid, whose partner NGO is helping Sethi in Orissa, said: ‘This move by the NHRC has come as a big relief. While we will have to wait and see what happens in the next two weeks, it nevertheless is encouraging that hapless people like Sethi are finally being heard.’

Sethi said around 60 people of the Dalit community still work as washermen in the village.

‘My brothers and I have been boycotted socially and economically. When my father passed away, we were not even allowed to carry out the last rites. My home was razed to the ground. Attacks happen often and the food is taken away. Ever since my brothers and I have got the land, the atrocities have increased,’ 45-year-old Sethi said.

‘The practice of forcing a particular community to continue washing clothes for dominant castes in lieu of a few rupees or few kilos of grains for an entire year is not only inhuman, but also violation of Section 2(g) of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976,’ Singh added.

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