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CAST ASIDE

Vegetables are expensive. So is dal. It takes, therefore, a peculiar kind of heartlessness and blindness to throw away mounds of vegetables cooked with rice and dal, a nutritious meal for children and pregnant mothers in an anganwadi centre. But such waste was never an issue with Indians who believe that caste distinction is the primary truth in life. So piles of food were thrown away at an anganwadi centre in a village in the Purulia district of West Bengal because the so-called higher castes in the village refused to eat anything cooked by a woman from a lower caste. This has happened before in Bengal, although a district official did say that it does not happen in any of the other 4795 anganwadi centres in the district. However heartening that sounds, it is tempting to ask whether the official is certain about this. In this particular centre, for example, no food had been cooked for the last two years simply because the higher castes refused to budge. The latest incident was the result of a desperate effort by the administration to break the deadlock. An awareness camp against caste distinctions was arranged from the morning while the woman appointed to cook two years ago happily got the food ready. Clearly, nothing had changed.

India thrives on insulting human beings for their caste, colour, gender, religion, profession, age and so on, so this is not surprising. Politicians live by such divisions, nurturing irrational superstitions and beliefs to create vote blocs of support. Maybe that is why caste is such a difficult belief to change, even in a state that was under Left rule for more than three decades. The contradiction lies in State policy. Caste must be erased in some institutional matters, such as in preparing midday meals for children in school, but it must also be encouraged, in reservations for the recruitment of teachers in the same schools, for example. Politicians do know on which side their bread is buttered. The waste of good food or childrenís nutrition is low on their list of priorities.