In India, the world's biggest democracy, one fifth of the population (around 200 million people) are considered 'untouchable'. They are the Dalits - so lowly they are ranked beneath the four tiers of the Hindu caste system.

'Untouchability' was legally banned under the Indian constitution in 1950, but today, rigid caste barriers still exist in under-resourced rural areas.

Dalits are the only Indians employed as
collectors of human waste and rubbish
Caste is very hard to eliminate from a culture as it provides India's poor with a sense of community and belonging. 

Dalits are traditionally forbidden to drink from public wells, to enter an upper caste home, sit with upper caste students, worship in an upper caste temple, and even to wear watches or ride bicycles in public. 

When Dalits break these unwritten rules, higher caste villagers discipline them by stripping, shaving and publically parading them. Amputation of a hand, rape and even murder are also regarded as fitting punishments.  

When caste-related violence breaks out in rural areas, activists say the police and local government turn a blind eye to the problem.

Many Dalits die prematurely from diseases
brought about by their work
Over the last 57 years the Indian government has attempted to legislate against discrimination on the basis of caste. At the end of 2006, Manmohan Singh became the first Indian leader to compare untouchability to apartheid. 

He says he is committed to ending this 3000-year-old social injustice, and plans on introducing positive discrimination for Dalits in India's booming private sector. But is affirmative action in the business sector the answer? It seems like a long-term solution. How can Singh bring about a social revolution overnight in feudal rural India – where Dalits continue to be the only Indians employed as collectors of human waste and rubbish, and to die prematurely from diseases caused by such work? 

Organisations like Human Rights Watch estimate that 20 crimes a minute are being committed against Dalits. And recent surveys show 60 per cent of Indians believe the caste system is holding back the country's development, and blocking social unity. So why is more not being done to level India's social playing field?

When will India cast off caste?

Outcaste airs on Al Jazeera English from 08 July 2007.

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