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Deccan Herald » Panorama » Detailed Story
Caste doesn’t matter
By Tavleen Singh
Nearly everyone I spoke to said issues of caste did not interest them and what they were interested in was improving their lives and ensuring that their children lived even better..
On a very hot morning last week, at the height of the protests against Arjun Singh’s 27% quota, I drove from Baroda to a village called Naoli off the country road that goes to Anand. My purpose was to interview people who had benefited from the Amul milk cooperative but because there were medical students in the streets of Mumbai and Delhi protesting against the quotas for other backward caste (OBC) students, I decided to use my visit to Naoli to also find out what people thought about reservations.

It was just after 6.30 a.m. when I got to Naoli and men, women and young children were queued up in the Amul milk collection centre in the village square. They brought milk in stainless steel containers which after being weighed for fat content was poured into a chilling unit where it stayed till tankers arrived from Anand to collect it for Amul’s butter factory. The people in the queue looked well fed and well dressed and the women I had come to interview wore nice saris and gold jewellery. They said that if you had one buffalo it was possible to make over Rs 1000 a month out of the cooperative and they treated this as a side business which paid for household expenses.

Having a cow or buffalo had the additional benefit, they said, of providing milk for the children of the family and they generally kept half for home use and sold the other half to the cooperative. I noticed a large heap of pipes that appeared to be part of some construction activity. When I asked what they were for the villagers said proudly that they were being installed to take ‘‘waste water’’ out of their houses. Sanitation. This was one of the schemes of Narendra Modi’s government, they said, and they were happy with him as chief minister because according to them they had seen visible change in their lives after he came. ‘‘We have electricity for 24 hours a day, running water in our homes and all this has happened since Narendra Modi became chief minister. In Congress times there was never any work done.”

As I was not certain if I had accidentally entered into conversation with a BJP political activist I changed the subject. As usually happens in villages a group of about twenty men had formed in the square and when I asked what they thought of Arjun Singh’s new reservations they said, ‘‘It’s time for reservations to go altogether. Caste is not so important as it used to be and in our village everybody sits and eats together so why are they doing this now?’’ ‘‘Which castes will benefit from this new 27 % quota?’’ I asked. ‘‘Adivasis and Harijans,’’ they said. ‘‘They come in another category,’’ I said, ‘‘there are already 22% seats in educational institutions reserved for them.’’ They looked puzzled, conferred amongst themselves for a moment and then told me that they did not have any other backward castes in the village. There must be castes, I persisted, who were considered backward like Yadavs in Northern India. Mulayam Singh and Laloo Yadav were backward caste leaders. This made them laugh. They thought I was joking. I spent an hour in the village asking people who the local backward castes were and could not find anyone who could identify them.

Nearly everyone I spoke to said issues of caste did not interest them and what they were interested in was improving their lives and ensuring that their children lived even better. The milk producing ladies said that although they had benefited from being part of the Amul cooperative they did not want their children to go into this line of work. ‘‘Have we sent them to school and college for them to become milkmen?’’

They said there were three high schools in the village and all the children these days went to school. Every household in the village had a TV set and there were at least 50 private cars. The only complaint the people of Naoli had was that they were not getting enough electricity for their fields. Unlike in the village where it was available 24 hours a day they got no more than seven or eight hours a day for agricultural purposes and often they did not know when it would come.

Why have I gone to some lengths to tell you about Naoli village? To draw your attention, dear readers, to just how out of sync the political class is with rural realities. While rural Indians, wherever I go, want an improvement in their standard of living more than anything else we have politicians who want to fool them by raising issues of caste. Where the average rural Indian seeks from government basic necessities like electricity, drinking water, roads, schools and jobs we have a political class that is trying to cover up its grim failures in these areas by changing the subject.

It has now been announced that the UPA government will go ahead with imposing a 27% quota for OBC students in Central government institutions of higher learning from June 2007. If proof were needed that Arjun Singh had the backing of Sonia Gandhi when he made his move then this is it. The question we have a right to ask is why this cynical, disruptive step was taken at a time when the economy is doing better than ever and the idea of prosperity has taken root even in the villages.
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