Ponselvan Thanapal Battles India’s Caste-Based Discrimination in the Time of COVID-19

by | May 8, 2020 | Changemaker Of The Week

She only had enough food left to feed her family for one week. This 35-year-old widowed woman, let’s call her Amara, and her family live in Dharavi, India. You may know Dharavi—it was the slum featured in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” This woman lost her husband due to alcoholism a few years back, and since then she has had full responsibility for the caregiving and support of her three children.

In this slum where Amara lives, residents lack access to sanitation and running water and live in very basic shelters with as many as 100 people sharing one toilet. The rent is 185 rupees ($2) per month, and Dharavi has one of the highest population densities in the world at more than 12,000 persons per acre. It is estimated, although there are no official figures, that 1 in 4 Dharavi residents has COVID-19 right now—which means one of Amara’s children, or perhaps even Amara herself, is most likely already infected.

Ponselvan Thanapal, a documentarian and human rights advocate, was born and raised in Dharavi, so he understands the conditions in which Amara lives. He also knows that because Amara is part of the Dalit community, as he is, she faces caste-based discrimination. Viewed as “untouchable,” she is excluded from humane housing.

It was because of Thanapal’s close ties to his community that he found out that Amara, who had no savings, was quickly running out of food. Through his project, Healthy Dharavi, funded by TPP’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, he was able to help her get provisions for a month, bringing her fresh vegetables.

Providing Amara and her family food to eat has been lifesaving in more ways than one. Thanapal describes:

“Hunger is a top priority. Because there is a lockdown, people are struggling to access food for their families. The lockdown has prevented these residents from doing their low-paid work, such as couriers, waiters, taxi and auto drivers, roadside food vendors and housekeepers, and as a result, they have started migrating on foot to their home villages. Many are abused on their journeys because of caste prejudice, and many even die en route, not reaching their destinations at all.”

Working with his wife Nabiya Ethiiraj, a mental health practitioner specializing in caste and mental illness, Thanapal has mobilized a group of 35 young Dalit activist volunteers. They are recognized as volunteers in the community and have permission to work in this crisis. “This pandemic has given us the insight to focus on the health and hygiene of people in a way that we never cared about it before, due to our poor infrastructure,” says Thanapal. “We have been seeing many people with anxiety and depression. We are committed to working on these long-term mental health issues after the relief work gets over.”

In addition to focusing on the psychosocial health of his community, Thanpal will use $500 in funding to buy and build “sanitation kits” that will offer a tank of water with soap that families can use to wash hands after using common toilets. They will use the remaining funding ($500) to provide basic food staples (rice, beans, etc.) to the neediest families in his community. His goal is that through these initiatives he could serve the 3,000 families in his immediate vicinity.

Perhaps as important as the money they were awarded by TPP, Thanpal and Ethiiraj are grateful for the plentiful connections they have made by being a part of the TPP community: “We are very grateful to new friends who have joined us in this small grassroots effort; the team at The Pollination Project for the seed money to start serving our community in Dharavi, our new friend Surya who contacted us through Twitter and designed our pamphlets, and our team, Dayamudra in the U.S. [a grantee that mentored Ponselvan and introduced him to TPP], and our friend Arun, on the ground in Kerala serving youth and their families. Friendship will change the world!”

Because of these friendships and Thanapal and Ethiiraj’s dedication to helping their community, Amara—and people like her—will have food and water during this crisis.

Written by Carolyn Ashworth