Dalit communities plan their own future


August 20th, 2015

Would attending your local council budget setting meeting be high on your wish list? Certainly not on mine!  But the Dalit community of Jessore in Bangladesh, consider the right to attend these meetings one of their proudest achievements. The minority Dalit community who live in slum areas previously faced exclusion because of their caste from all political, social and economic activity and traditionally work in very low paid jobs as road sweepers, pit latrine emptiers and cleaners.

IMG_0316Last week I visited some of these communities along with partner organisation DHARA who are working with Practical Action to improve the living conditions of these minorities. This is the second phase of the pro-poor urban development project, IUD2, which has been running since 2012 and is funded by the European Commission and DFID.  The project is also operating in Faridpur in Bangladesh, Butwal and Bharatpur in Nepal and Kurunegala and Akkaraipattu in Sri Lanka

The first step was to develop a Community Improvement Plan to prioritise the work they wanted to see done in each area and to select community leaders to voice their demands to the municipality.

Sukia (above in the green sari), a widow in her late thirties, was chosen as a leader of her area, Old Pourashava, a dalit area for about 200 years. It is a small community of in a dense cluster, accessed from an alley off the main road.  The streets are narrow – suitable only for pedestrians and bicycles.

Sukia is enthusiastic about the project’s achievements:

“Previously the ground here was covered in waste, water, mud and urine, now we have a paved walkway with drainage.  Our environment is better than ever before.  Before we collected water from a dirty source, now we have clean water from our deep tube well and a wall to give some privacy from the main road when we are washing.”

She speaks with the confidence of a woman proud to represent her community. She goes on to tell us that while before there were only 2 toilets for the 30 household in Pourashava, they now have 1 for every 10 families, with a member of the community given the job of keeping them clean and in working order.  When it rains heavily (as it does frequently in the monsoon season) the water now flows down holes in the pathway into the drains instead of flooding houses as in the past.

Tube well Old Pourashava JessoreSukia showed us their community action plan and explained that they still have work to do on improving housing and creating an area boundary but she is confident that now they will be able to access municipality funding, something they would not have dreamed of five years ago.

The partner organisation DHARA, led by the highly charismatic Lipika Das Gupta (above behind Sukia in the pink sari) are helping to deliver similar improvements in 5 other dalit communities in Jessore, working with 1,824 beneficiaries, half of whom are women.

IUD2 project achievements in Jessore

  • 6 Settlement Improvement Committees formed and given leadership and governance training
  • Training on tailoring, handicraft, mechanics and mobile servicing to 1,836 beneficiaries for income generation and 28 sewing machines
  • Budget allocation from the municipality for Dalit communities for the first time
  • Infrastructure development – protected water pumps, toilets, drainage, road surfacing and a community centre in each area

But the main achievement has been to give a voice to this Dalit minority. Women especially have been empowered to talk to people in authority and to request improvements in their living conditions.  As a result have boosted their status, their environment and their incomes.

Sukia spoke enthusiastically about the future: “With your support we will be able to complete our plan. I am so proud that I can now do something for my family.”

This is a demonstration of local democracy in action and a truly uplifting experience.

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