Veerasamy takes in washing for his living. He lives in a small village in southern India where all the inhabiants are dalits – outcasts or ‘untouchables’ as they’re known in India. But even among the dalits, there are divisions, and Veerasamy belongs to the lowest scale of the hierarchy. The only payment he receives for back-breaking work, washing and steaming and drying the village’s laundry, is to receive the left-overs from their meals to feed his small family. Discrimination based on caste membership has been, theoretically, illegal since India first gained independence in 1947. But, as this ‘Life’ programme from Danish director Poul Kjar shows only too plainly, it’s an accepted part of everyday life across the continent. Whole families of dalit people exist effectively as bonded or slave labourers, cutting up rocks with their bare hands in a Tamil Nadu quarry. Eight-year-old children work ten to twelve hour days in India’s silk factories, prized for their docility, hard work and dexterity. There are an estimated 100 million child labourers in India. Human rights organsations are now, finally, taking up the dalits’ cause and, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu urges in the introduction to the film, calling for the end of a system of discrimination as the heinous as the former apartheid system he and his generation fought against in South Africa.
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