Shunned villagers facing caste-based discrimination seek help to vote in coastal Odisha  

Families are unable to exercise their franchise as they had to flee their villages after they refused to perform exploitative ‘inherited vocations’ in the Puri Lok Sabha constituency

Updated - May 22, 2024 03:20 am IST

Published - May 22, 2024 03:16 am IST

Family members of rural area driven out from their villages stranded in Brahmagiri, 20 km away from Puri.

Family members of rural area driven out from their villages stranded in Brahmagiri, 20 km away from Puri. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The 2024 Lok Sabha election might be a nationwide celebration in democracy for millions but Ashok Sethi and his family, citizens living in this coastal region, may have to forego another opportunity to vote.

Five years ago, in Nuagaon, in Odisha’s Krushnaprasad block under the Puri Lok Sabha constituency, Mr. Sethi and his fellow villagers faced social ostracisation for refusing to wash dirty clothes, an exploitative vocation they had inherited from their forefathers.

Now stranded in Brahmagiri, 15 km away from his own village, Mr. Sethi holds out hope that the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) will intervene, enabling them to exercise their right to vote.

In the same locality lives Maheshwar Barik and his family members, who too had refused to perform the ‘hereditary’ menial job of cutting hair, and clearing leftover food on social occasions, in 2018. They were also driven out from Manpur village under the Brahmagiri Police Station. Following the OHRC’s intervention, they managed to go back to their own village under police protection and cast their votes in the 2022 panchayat election. Mr. Barik hopes a similar arrangement will enable him to cast his vote this year.

On the other hand, Sangram Puhan, who fled his village along with 30 families in 2021 upon their refusal to perform caste-based servitude, including carrying a palanquin during marriages, are enjoying a rare rapprochement, although temporary, at Nathapur in the Krushnaprasad block of Puri. As every vote matters this time in a closely fought election, the villagers who were driven out have been invited to return to exercise their franchise. “We know the bonhomie is aimed at securing our votes,” Mr. Puhan said.

Baghambar Pattnaik, a renowned human right activist, on Monday moved the OHRC, seeking police protection for families driven out from their villages, so that they could exercise of their voting rights.

“These villagers are defenceless in the wake of the dominance of upper caste families in their respective villages. Even after the passage of six years, they feel threatened to return home and participate in the election. I have urged that these villagers should be taken in police vans to their respective polling booths for the protection of their voting rights,” Mr. Pattnaik said.

The human rights activists said he had taken up over 100 cases of caste-based ‘social boycotts’ to the OHRC and National Human Rights Commission. “In 2014, voters belonging to the washermen community in Kanas block of Puri district were able to cast votes after the NHRC intervened in a similar social boycott,” Mr. Pattnaik said.

“We are paid nine kilogrammes of paddy worth ₹180 for washing the clothes of a married couple throughout the year. These clothes include the soiled clothes of menstruating women. When there is a death, we cut big trees to ready them as fuel wood for cremation,” Mr. Sethi, who was officially released from caste-based bondage in accordance with the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, said.

“We demanded that all physical labour should be accounted for as per prevailing wages. It enraged villagers and we faced the backlash,” he said. Mr. Sethi said 20 voters belonging to four discriminated and shunned families had missed the 2019 simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the State, and the 2022 panchayat election.

The annual compensation of 15 kg rice for rendering demeaning service to every family or married couple, known as the ‘bartan’ system, is still in practice in many of Odisha’s coastal districts. Caste bondage is acute in Puri, where polling will take place on May 25.

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