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From untouchable to organic: Dalit women sow change in India

ERACHI, India — The plot sits across from barren sugarcane fields and behind this small village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Just one acre of sandy dirt, it probably never gets a second glance. But for 65-year-old Kasiammal Karuppasamy, it’s a small miracle.

“I’ve worked the land my whole life,” says the stern, bowlegged woman in her native Tamil. “But I was always a kuli,” she says, meaning she has spent her life as one of India’s 340 million landless laborers, who typically earn less than a dollar a day.

But the modest parcel on which she stands is about to change that. Kasiammal and 11 others of her local chapter of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective (TNWC), a statewide grassroots organization composed mainly of Dalit women, were preparing to sow millet, green gram and pulses on the land they have leased. “This is the first time we can decide what we grow and how,” says Kassiamal, rolling her shoulders back slightly and pressing her heels into the ground.

Kasiammal came of age during India’s so-called Green Revolution, which began in the 1960’s, when the country shifted to high-yield crop varieties and modern agricultural techniques. It turned the world’s second-most-populous nation into a leading self-sustaining food producer. She watched warily as the massive harvests sank water tables and as chemical fertilizers made the soil “tired and salty.” But “as a kuli,” she says, “you follow orders.”

Farming wasn’t the only area of Kasiammal’s life in which she did what she was told. The former kuli grew up at a time when “untouchable” was still an acceptable term. She remembers removing her shoes when walking through an upper-caste neighborhood and never asking for a dog, which were forbidden for Dalits, lest their pets mate with those belonging to higher-caste owners. In the fields, when the landowners and their sons came to fetch kuli girls “to do what they wanted with them,” Kasiammal says, she knew to keep her mouth shut.

Despite the narrow canal of sewage that runs from the upper-caste neighborhood to her home in Erachi’s Dalit section and her uneven access to potable water, Kasiammal says things have changed. “We have this,” she says, pointing her chin toward the soil.

Kasiammal’s plot is one of about 25 collective pilot farms throughout the state, an initiative that stems from two decades of work by TNWC members. Founded in 1994 by a handful of women, the collective is now a powerful federation of local groups in more than 1,500 villages across the state. They have approximately 60,000 members, mostly Dalit. The members are young and old, married and widowed, and they live in villages, towns and cities.

The status of women in India became a world-news talking point in 2012, when the country erupted in protest over a horrific gang rape on a bus in New Delhi. More recently, two lower-caste girls were gang raped and hung from a tree in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. But India’s struggles with gender equity are not new: it had already been ranked the worst of the G-20 nations in which to be a woman and among the five worst in the entire world (just behind Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia). In recent years, there have been some advances. By law, the country’s women are now practically equal to men. But those rights often exist only on paper, especially in rural areas.

The collective has been on a mission to change that one village at a time. Through strategic organizing, peer support and leveraging its combined power, the group has confronted domestic violence, predatory money lenders, caste discrimination, environmental destruction and more. It is active in politics, too, encouraging and training members to run for office. More than 1,000 of them have run for state and local office in the last 10 years, and over 500 have been elected.