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An "Untouchable" Battles Discrimination with Progress: Manjula Pradeep

In India today, the Dalits—more commonly known as the Untouchables—are legally protected from discrimination, yet still rejected by much of society. At school, Dalit children are often forced to scrub floors while classmates study. As adults, Dalit are lucky to find work.

Manjula Pradeep could have been consigned to the life of a Dalit—working menial jobs as a leather tanner or latrine cleaner. Instead, armed with a master’s degree in social work, she takes on an even crueler task every day—battling the hatred, discrimination and violence displayed toward Dalit people in her province of Gujarat, where tradition is a powerful enemy of progress.

Her weapon of choice is a small school that she founded near the tiny rural village of Rayka, far from the industries that have powered the growth of India’s huge cities, but representative of India’s best shot at a modern future—after all, despite years of impressive growth in the GDP, 70 percent of India’s people live in rural isolation. India’s well-being depends on the rural poor becoming middle-class workers and consumers who enjoy the kind of life promised by independence and democracy.

‘‘These children come here and are treated as people,’’ Manjula said of her students. Like students at the better Indian schools, these boys and girls will learn foundational academics, they will be taught to speak English, and they will be equipped with the technical skills needed in the 21st century. More importantly, they will be taught to challenge discrimination and stand up to those who would relegate them to second- or third-class status. To reinforce the ideal of equality, all students participate in the work of preparing meals with the head cook, who was cast out by her family when they learned that her husband had given her HIV. When the meal is ready, students take turns serving it from large platters and eat together.

Manjula’s efforts reflect a pivotal point for India—a choice between exclusion of women and Dalits, or inclusion of people of all backgrounds and experiences. The more who choose the path of Manjula and trumpet diversity as a catalyst for innovation and peace, the sooner India will establish happiness and economic well-being for its society as a whole.