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India Criticized for Discrimination Against Untouchables

The plight of untouchables in India is being considered by U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is meeting this month in Geneva. Two non-governmental organizations - Human Rights Watch and the International Dalit Solidarity Network - held a news conference Monday to bring greater attention to the abuse that they say members of the so-called "untouchable" - or Dalits - still face. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA in Geneva.

Representatives of Human Rights Watch and the International Dalit Solidarity Network said India is failing to uphold laws against caste discrimination as they relate to the rights of members of the untouchable caste, who are also known as Dalits.

According to the officials, the country's 165 million Dalits continue to face segregation in housing, schools, and access to public services. They are also, the officials say, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused by police and upper-caste community members who enjoy the state's protection.

The human rights officials, whose advice was sought by the U.N. committee, said the discrimination is taking place despite the fact that the caste system is abolished in the Indian Constitution.

Smita Narula is a professor of Law at New York University and co-author of a report called Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India's "Untouchables." She says the Dalits are the most vulnerable and exploited people in India.

"We are talking about over 167 million people in the country. The majority of whom live in segregation and experience violence, murder, rape and atrocities to the scale of 110,000 registered cases a year according to 2005 statistics," she said. "A majority of those cases end in acquittals if they ever get to trial. The solution is to end impunity and for the state to stop colluding and acting in this capacity and to end hidden apartheid in India. It is not a new solution. It is an end to oppression and discrimination and violence."

Ruth Manorama is president of the National Federation of Dalit Women in India. She told the committee about the prejudice the Dalits face.

"Formerly we have been called untouchables. If somebody touches, they get polluted…They cannot fetch water from the common wells from the common task," she said. "If there is a restaurant in the rural villages, they cannot ordinarily go and have a cup of tea in the same cup others drink. They will have a separate class system. If they have to go and worship in the temples… If they want to go to the temples, they are not allowed. And, anything menial, anything devalued, anything non payment, anything bonded laborers-most of them are from the Dalit communities that has been assigned to Dalits."

In December, Manmohan Singh became the first sitting Indian prime minister to openly acknowledge the parallel between the practice of "untouchability" and the crime of apartheid. Singh described "untouchability" as a "blot on humanity" adding that "even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and state support, there is still social discrimination against Dalits in many parts of our country."

After it is finished hearing witnesses, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is expected to issue its conclusions and recommendations in March.