More than 160 million people in India are considered “Untouchable”—people tainted by their birth into an irrational caste system that defines them as impure and less than human. Ghandi called them Harijans, or “children of God” and launched campaigns to improve their lives, but in spite of his efforts, Untouchables in India are still not allowed to drink from the same wells as upper class Hindus, or attend the same temples, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls. They spend their lives doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, and are frequent victims of violence.
Jacob Mathew, my partner in a company that sells affordable safe water to poor rural customers in India, learned that a Harijan family came to a water kiosk we opened in a small village in Orissa, and bought ten liters of drinking water from the shopkeeper. But while they were filling their ten liter jerry can, they inadvertently touched the spigot of the 3,000 liter water tank. A family belonging the high status Brahmin caste in the village complained, and the shopkeeper had to open the spigot and let 3,000 liters of water run out on the ground, and then purify the tank before he could resume selling water. Understandably, not a single member of the 12 untouchable families in the village of 120 families ever came to fetch water from the kiosk again.
Then Jacob came up with an ingenious solution. We would test applying our bicycle home delivery system, which brings water to customers’ homes at about twice the price of water at the kiosk, to see if carrying water to the home of Harijan families would be culturally acceptable.
While it is culturally taboo in most villages for untouchables to purchase drinking water from the same kiosk that sells water to Brahmins, it appears to be culturally acceptable for higher caste laborers to deliver water to the homes of harijans. Within two weeks, five of the 12 harijan families had become customers for home delivered safe drinking water. This opens up a whole new market for our company, and raises the possibility that we can begin to carry products like handicrafts made by untouchables back by bicycle for sale in market towns or even for export.
It seems to me that every society creates an untouchable underclass. Jews, gypsies and homosexuals were the untouchables In Hitler’s Third Reich, and in the United States for many years we treated black people in much the same way that harijans are treated in India now. Just as it did for many black people in the United States, I believe that economic empowerment provides the greatest opportunity to transform the status of 160 million untouchables in India to-day.