30 years later: caste, power and electricity

A lone dibiya (kerosene lamp) and books awaits a child


The village Rangpur lies by a dam, between a national highway and the Ganges. It has a good mixture of people from all castes. Although, the ratio of forwards and backwards [1] is 50:50, the village proceedings are generally dominated by the forward castes.

This story is set in Dabangpur Chamartoli. Chamartoli is a tola (colony) inhibited by Chamars. Chamars by caste and by profession have historically been involved in skinning animals, tanning leather and making shoes and other footwear. However, now like every other caste, they have diversified and moved on. Most of them, like many other backward castes now work as daily wagers or agricultural workers. Although very few own any agricultural land, several now sustain their livelihoods on agriculture by farming the lands of landed castes on theeka (rental basis) or bataiya (share cropping). Very few actually deal with leather now. Since, chamars dealt with dead animals and leather, they were considered 'unclean' and 'untouchables'. If one visits a typical Bihari [2] village one would find separate colonies for different castes, with the dalit [3] colonies typically on the fringes or as satellite colonies outside the village boundary. Their 'unclean' status puts them on the fringes, geographically and socially. Although some mixing and acceptance has come their way, the chamartoli in various villages are still found on the fringes.

During the initial days of my fieldwork in Rangpur, I had come to know about the Dabangpur chamartoli. It was strange that this colony of chamars, although a part of Rangpur, was known by the name of the neighbouring village Dabangpur. On enquiring, I found out that this chamartoli lies right on the boarder between Rangpur and Dabangpur. I was also told that these chamars have traditionally been "their chamars", meaning Dabangpur's. This means that the inhabitants of this chamartoli, in the past have been picking the dead animals and doing leather work for the residents of Dabangpur villageThat is why it is known by the name of Dabangpur.

Cut to Present

Since, I want to visit all parts of Rangpur and see the everyday life of all the sections of the society, it is important for me to visit the chamartoli. The importance of this chamartoli for me further increased after I passed through it a couple of weeks ago and found that the colony had no access to electricity. This I find strange because all other parts of Rangpur have had electricity for the past 30 years. 

The mukhiya (headman) of Rangpur village, a higher caste man, is my gatekeeper to this society. He has designated his elder brother, Rameshar as my guide. I have been requesting Rameshar for several days to take me to Dabangpur Chamartoli. He has been a little hesitant. This is probably because of the old stigma of 'uncleanness' [4] associated with the chamars. Anyway, I have finally been able to convince him to accompany me to the chamartoli.

So, armed with our torches we leave for the chamartoli. We climb the dam and head west. After walking for a while I see a solitary lamp lighted under the dam. We climb down the dam and reach a pucca house [5]. This is not the chamartoli. Actually Rameshar doesn't know anyone in the chamartoli. So, he has come to this house, the house of a higher caste family to ask for an introduction. Some men from the chamartoli are called and asked to show us around. We enter the chamartoli. Its dark all around. Our torches are at work again. We reach an opening and some chairs appear from the dark. A kerosene lantern is called for. Its hung to the wall of a kuccha house near by.

I sit on a chair. Rameshar sits on the chair next to me [6]. Some other chairs are laid. Some boys and a couple of men from the chamartoli sit with us. Most men are not back yet. They leave every morning to find work as daily wagers. Several women join us. Some of them keep standing, some sit on the ground in front of us, in the dark. It seems like we are sitting on an island of light in a sea of darkness. We start discussing how they live without electricity. I hear some responses coming from the dark. I point my torch towards the voices. On the ground, on a mat a few women and children are sitting. A goat is standing nearby. I will post these pictures next time when I talk about "whats behind the curtain".

The island of light and the sea of darkness around

After a brief chat, we walk around the colony to see how they manage without electricity. All of them use kerosene lamps. Walking around the colony I see little buoys of light in the sea of darkness, lights from kerosene lamps. But most of these people are the poorest of the poor. Most of them live in kuccha houses. Houses that are made of mud and straw. Houses that are highly vulnerable to fire. Fire from kerosene lamps. Fire that provides light. Light that is risky. 

A woman carries out her daily chores under a dibiya

They are egre for me to see all the houses in the chamartoli. They want me to tell their stories. They hope that this would change things for them. I walk with them, watching and talking. A man tells me that during the last 30 years they have received hopes of electrification, but not electricity. Initially wooden poles were erected in this tola. Wires didn't follow. Poles were stolen. Hopes were crushed. 

We reach a house, a pucca house. There is no door. By the doorstep, a plastic banner has been laid, a banner for saries [7]. On the banner sits a child with a notebook. By the notebook is a kerosene lamp made from a glass bottle. Near that lies a plastic bag, the child's school bag.

A child studies under the kerosene lamp

The child doesn't seem interested in studying. His notebook is upside down. People have told me before that kids can not focus well and show less interest in studying under the inferior lights of the kerosene lamps. We walk further.  Someone tells me that 10 years earlier, hope had returned. Electricity poles were erected again. This time metal poles. I ask if wires and transformers followed. No they didn't. Another round of electrification ended with the poles. Again poles were stolen. So were the hopes.

The story of electrification moves on, so do we. We reach another house. Another house, another kerosene lamp. A man is cooking on a chulha [8]. He has just returned from work. His wife stands by. Good news: the man is extending a helping hand in the household chores. Bad news: The indoor environment is full of deadly smoke from the chulha and the dibiya [9]

A man and woman cook under the kerosene dibiya

We walk further. My torch light hits a cement structure. I enquire. Its an electricity pole. Poles have arrived again, so have hopes - for the third time. The cement electricity poles were erected last year but haven't been followed up with wires yet. However, I had seen some wires and a transformer at the headman's house which he told me were for the chamartoli. So, finally some good news for this colony. Electricity and electric lights may finally arrive. I plan to visit this colony again to check on the progress.

As we walk further, we encounter a woman walking with a dibiya in her hand. She doesn't has a torch. They tell me many women do this. If there is wind they shield the dibiya with their sari. They tell me its dangerous. Sometimes the sari catches fire. Fire that provides light. Light that is risky. The woman laughs it off. Its part of her daily life. She has to live with it.

A woman walking around with a dibiya

In the end we reach another house, a kuccha house. I look into the kitchen. A woman in an orange sari is cooking dinner on a chulha. There is no one else in the room. But she is talking. I look closely. She has a mobile phone. I don't see a dibiya in the room. Its probably on the chulha. She doesn't look at us. She is busy with the mobile phone. The mobile phone has made its way into all households and is now making its way into all hands. Its a very useful device. Indian mobile phones have inbuilt torches too. Very useful for the residents of this chamartoli. I will show the utility of such mobile phones in a future post.

A woman busy with her mobile phone

I have seen enough. I have more questions than answers. I am wondering why electricity has still not made its way to only this part of the village? Why after several tries poles have not been followed up with wires? Has all this got something to do with the dominance of certain castes? What has the state been doing all these years?

I will try and find out the answers to these questions. Keep an eye on this space.

However, the good news is that the wires and the transformer have finally arrived and it may not be long until electricity does too.

1. The higher castes, according to the Hindu caste system, are also referred to as 'forwards' and the lower castes as 'backwards'.
2. Belonging to the state of Bihar in India
3. Dalits are members of various castes considered as 'untouchables' according to the Hindu caste system. The India constitution has designated them as 'scheduled castes'.
4. I have not used the word 'untouchability' because in my view untouchability is not a issue here. These two parts of the village society (the higher caste and the chamars) now interact closely. Several of these chamars now farm on the lands of higher caste people against a rental or on share cropping, something that may not have been possible in the untouchability era. However, the feeling of 'uncleanness' in my view still arises from the fact that chamars used to deal with dead animals and leather.
5. A solid or permanent house
6. Another evidence that untouchability is not really the issue here
7. Sari is the traditional dress of India. Its is a long piece of cloth that women wrap around their bodies. For reference see the woman above
8. Earthen wood fired hearth used for cooking in Indian villages

This post was first published on my other blog stories of lights on 3rd January 2013. This reposting is a part of a plan to merge the two blogs at a later date.


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