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'A Tragedy of Dignity': Life as One of Bangladesh's 'Untouchables'

Members of Bangladesh's sweeper class are seen as the lowest of the low in the country's caste system. They face limited opportunities, debilitating floods, and social stigma.
Photo by Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam

"There is no future for us here," Ratan Basfur says angrily. Basfur is an "untouchable," a member of one of Bangladesh's lowest castes, and his surname cements it. The Basfurs are part of the "sweeper class" that live in Horijon Polli, a densely packed slum in Mymensingh District that contains 1,200 households, with an average of five inhabitants in each.

Living here means being condemned to poor sanitation, limited employment opportunities, and debilitating floods. The slum is dense with humans living in buildings that are structurally unsound and the area is not served by municipal waste collection.


Within the slum, Basfurs are the lowest of the low — even their neighbors avoid coming in contact with things they have touched, won't share their water, and sometimes even refuse to speak to them.

Bangladesh has a population of over 150 million people. Almost 90 percent of those are Muslim, and Hindus are the largest minority, making up just over nine percent. The country's constitution grants the rights of all citizens regardless of caste, race, sex, religion, or place of birth, but in reality being born at the bottom of this system has long-lasting consequences.

Munni and Ratan Basfur with three of their four children outside their home. Photo by Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam.

A 2013 study by Mazharul Islam and Altaf Parvez pointed out that while sample surveys indicate that there are between 5.5 and 6.5 million "Dalit" people, designated as "untouchables," living in Bangladesh, the country's census does not record information about them. The report notes that "the lack of concrete data contributes to the invisibility, marginalization, and disempowerment of these communities," and prevents any moves to politicize the issue, including claims for "special measures, representation, or participation in policy making, development, employment, and equality of access to basic services."

The Basfurs can usually only get casual work. Existence at the lowest levels of the social hierarchy means they have the least access to political recourse, and therefore they are often overlooked for service provision by the local government. Religious minorities often lie at the bottom of the caste system and a language barrier can exist too. Many older Horijon Polli residents speak only Hindi, while those who are younger and more educated may speak Bengali as well.


Ratan Basfur, 32, works as a casual cleaner for a hotel and for Mymensingh's Municipal Authority, for which he earns $36 per month. He is increasingly frustrated, an emotion that bursts out as he talks.

"We're looked down on," he stated. "That is a challenge. We are not connected to the rest of the world."

Related: Tension builds again in Bangladesh as opposition leader's arrest warrant is upheld. Read more here.

Even among the most disadvantaged, infighting is common. Inside the slum a further level of caste differentiation applies. Basfur families are considered to be even lower than another discriminated against group of people — the Horijon.

"People are always in disagreement here," Ratan said. "There are two communities here, one is Horijon and the other is Basfur. Horijons are perceived to be a better community, of a better caste, and they usually live in a better environment. A Horijon will not enter our house, they will not touch what we've touched, or eat what we eat. But we eat what they've touched.

"Horijons are usually better educated than Basfurs, even though we do similar work. There is a caste system even among us — in the same slum — which divides us. Horijons look down on us, as we are considered a lower class."

The word "Dalit" comes from Sanskrit, and translates to "those who have been broken and ground down deliberately by those above them in the social hierarchy." Dalit people can be found across South Asia and discrimination against them, as a social group, has become increasingly politicized.


"There is a growing civil society movement to defend and ensure the rights of Dalits in Bangladesh," Rikke Nöhrlind, executive director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network, told VICE News. "Young Dalits, including young women, are increasingly getting organized to stand up for their rights and claim an education." Nöhrlind added, however, that most do not have the resources to maintain what is a "significant struggle, so we are still only seeing a few managing to break out of their traditional caste occupations and economic status."

Nöhrlind said that a considerable amount is being done by Bangladeshi human rights defenders to urge the government to "enact special anti-discrimination legislation, collect data on the welfare of Dalits in the country, enact quota systems, special measures, and budgets for Dalits, as well as cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms to end caste-based discrimination and exclusion."

However, the group's designation continues to have both subtle and shocking consequences. A 2011 report published by South Asians for Human Rights found that violence towards members of lower castes was on the increase. The incidents recorded included murder, rape, the denial of access to public places, physical torture, land grabbing, forceful conversion, the looting of houses, and discrimination in schools.

Nöhrlind also noted that Dalit women are particularly hard hit, "as they suffer triple discrimination on the grounds of caste, gender, and religion."


A rubbish dumping area in Horijon Polli. Photo by Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam.

Around half of all Horijon Polli residents don't have access to a toilet connected to their living quarters. Queues for the one open public toilet block in the Basfur area can last between three and five hours each morning. Children defecate in a drain in the slum.

As there are no showers, some women wash fully clothed using water from the well.

Munni Basfur works three cleaning jobs. She wakes at 4am to clean the street, employed casually by the city government. Then she moves on to a pharmaceutical company to do a two-hour cleaning shift, and does another half an hour's work in a store.

She spoke about one of the biggest concerns of the sweeper class — the fact that they've condemned their offspring to a life in the lowest caste. There have even been reports of untouchables sending their children away and encouraging them to change their names, in the hopes that the next generation can escape the stigma that has plagued their parents.

The Basfurs' four children all currently attend school. Munni remarked: "If someone asks me what my mobile number is I cannot tell them, because my parents didn't teach me. I want my children to learn numbers."

With certainty, she said that she has no way to help her children find employment. "I don't know what their future holds, their fate is a question I can't answer."

Her 14-year-old daughter Chandra is in Year 7 in school. Chandra — whose name has been changed — loves playing sports, particularly badminton and football. She is often forced to sit in the back of the schoolroom with other children of the sweeper class. Their classmates aren't allowed to touch these children.


Chandra said this has impacted on her, and that she has "learned at school how to be clean and how to behave with people. If you live in a clean place you won't have diseases. I try to keep the home clean and clear, and I try to keep my little brothers clean, as well as the environment."

While Chandra finds the practicalities of her home life can be difficult, she added: "I actually like living here, because you always like the place you're born in. My whole family is here with me."

Related: Several killed and dozens trapped after factory collapse in Bangladesh. Read more here.

Chandra would like to graduate "at least from college," a dream she says her father has acquiesced to for the moment. "My parents treat us boys and girls equally but most parents do not. Some girls are not allowed to go outside — but boys can go wherever they want," she continued.

"I can only go to school alone. If I want to go somewhere else my parents take me… When I'm older my parents will marry me off and I'll not be allowed this freedom then either. My husband will have to take me. Here — I don't mind. My mother has my safety in mind.

"But maybe when I'm married off I might resent this and want more freedom to do my own thing," she added. "It's difficult to really be someone here, because girls are married off at such a young age. The law says 18, but it's not enforced here. So I'll be married young."

Munni cooks breakfast with her son, age two. Photo by Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam.

Luke Henrion, an Oxfam commissioning editor who traveled to Bangladesh late in 2014 to work with the inhabitants of Horijon Polli, told VICE News that many of the people he met were as much embarrassed about their situation as angry at the unjustness of it. Older people were "more frustrated than the young people," he said. "For the young people it was all they knew. It seemed that life got harder the older you got, the more responsibility you had and the kids just carried on playing, but they were playing in really squalid conditions. Every time it flooded they were having to play in sewage water from the drain."


Henrion's overwhelming impression, he said, was of a "huge kind of tragedy of dignity, especially for the women who have to queue for four or five hours in the morning to use a tiny, dilapidated block of pit latrines, which then get horribly flooded when there's rain."

Related: Sex, slavery, and drugs in Bangladesh. Watch here.

While there are ways to escape and climb the social strata, in Henrion's opinion those are few and very far between. "To get through the system you have to be very entrepreneurial and think outside the box," he said, but added that even then their stigma was often inescapable. "Their name is their caste. They're identifiable by that."

Because of the lack of proper drainage in the slum, rain often results in floods, and 15 minutes of deluge is all it takes to start to engulf Ratan and Munni's house. Munni explained: "The water comes up 1.5 feet every time it floods. During monsoon, the drain outside our house gets inundated. The water level exceeds even my bed. We have to raise it up on bricks, and sleep above the soiled water. For two days we can be stuck up on the bed on bricks."

Ratan also highlighted the constant fear of disaster and its resultant tragedy. "I am 32 right now," he said. "In my 32 years I have seen 10 slums completely burned by fire. That's also a scare. The houses are small and just beside each other. If one room catches fire it doesn't take much time to spread."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Some research and interviews for this article were conducted by Oxfam. 

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