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.
On the day of Mamta’s ultimatum, Oma Ram went to the village square to look for leads for potential employment. Sher Singh, a Rajput truck driver from Palasa village, part of the same gram panchayat as Digaria, was recruiting daily-wagers to work at a week-long medical camp in Jaipur. The job, as Singh described to those interested, was to set up the tents, serve food and refreshments to incoming patients, keep the surroundings clean and help the medical personnel. The promised daily wage was Rs 500, alongside free food and lodging.
The next morning, on 18 April, Oma Ram and 20 other men from his village—all young Meghwals—left with Singh for Jaipur. After a five-hour drive, they reached the isolated Malpani Hospital and were lodged in its basement. The basement had seven other people from Bharatpur and Jaipur, who had come for the same work. The hospital workers told the men that the camp doctors will come two days later, and that until then they should not leave the basement at any cost. “The basement was filthy with mounds of medical trash in several corners. On one side, there were a couple of hospital beds and we were asked to rest there,” Sohan Lal, a 19-year-old student who had come to work so he could earn his college fee, told me.