Touching the Untouchables

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by Paul Polak

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.

This Harijan lady is a self help group leader- her husband owns a rickshaw but is too sick from drinking bad water to operate it.

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.

It worked!

Untouchable Child

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.

Older woman from Harijan Community

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.

Sharing Coconut Water with the Harijan Community

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Gerardo

    You are teaching us how a smart idea at the right time can change paradigms as strong as the discrimination. I believe that the application of economics established well concepts can contribute both to the peace and to the social welfare. Then, we have to extrapolate such applications to use them in our places and to amend the problems of our poor citizens. Thanks you for your efforts.

  2. paul polak

    thanks gerardo
    i’m with you- practical economics are a powerful tool to transform destructive cultural steriotypes

    paul polak

  3. Amogh

    Ingenious idea Paul! However, my conscience is not able to fathom the fact that an underprivileged member of the society has to pay more for the same commodity than a privileged member? I know the deliveries incur costs, but it isn’t the Harijans’ fault that they aren’t allowed to take water from the same Kiosk as a Brahman. Why should the Harijans pay more for a mistake that Brahmans or rather the society in it’s entirety is committing?
    I propose a solution, can the cost of the water itself be increased a bit to make up for the delivery cost? This way everyone shares equal burden for a mistake that everyone’s committing.

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