It was mid April, the onset of the heat wave in Rajasthan. Twenty-one-year-old Mamta had spent three consecutive days lying on her bed next to a mud wall in her round, thatched hut. That day she gave her husband, 24-year-old Oma Ram, an ultimatum: either he finds work outside their village or she would leave.
When Oma Ram was 13 years old, his father died. Since then, he had been fending for himself by alternating as a shepherd for the village cattle and as a farm labourer during the four-month farming season each year. Like most young men from his community—Meghwals, enlisted as a Scheduled Caste in Rajasthan—he owns a small patch of farm land, two beeghas that yield abysmal harvests from millets and barley. Depending on it for livelihood is not possible. In the last two years, since his marriage, the lack of money had marred his household more than ever. With increasingly dismal rainfall each year, chances of finding work on farms closer home had grown bleak. According to the local doctor, Mamta had contracted jaundice due to regular bouts of starvation and hunger.
Digaria, Oma Ram and Mamta’s village in Rajasthan’s Churu district, is occupied primarily by the Meghwals. The gram pradhan Umed Singh said that it has a voting population of 1,600, and is clubbed with four other villages under the Ghantiyal Badi panchayat. Untouchability is rampantly practised. Dalits are not allowed entry into the district’s famous Babosa Balaji Maharaj temple. They can only draw water from designated wells, and regularly face thrashing if found sitting on cots in the presence of the Rajput and Brahmin landowners whose farms they work in. Traditionally, the Meghwals worked as weavers and wood carvers, but over the years, working as farm labourers has become their primary occupation. Several people I met said that for a 12-hour shift, they are paid Rs 200.