IDUKKI: Raman (name changed) has a postgraduate degree and a job at a reputed private company to boot. But that's not enough for him to get his hair cut at any of the barber shops in his village. Reason: The salons are frequented by upper caste people and Raman belongs to the Chakkliya community.
In Vattavada, a village located in the rainshadow area of the Western Ghats in Idukki, higher caste people have announced a blanket ban on Dalits accessing services at salons visited by them.
"Barbers in the village have been pressured by the upper caste," sources said. This practice has been common in Vattavada, an area dominated by Tamil settlers. The ancient customs practised in neighboring Tamil Nadu are followed more here. Even the Dalits hardly raise any voice against it.
It was only recently that some Dalit youths from the village decided to complain to the panchayat authorities about such discrimination. But the barbers continued to refuse and said they preferred shutting their shops to cutting the hair of Dalits. Eventually, two barber shops in Vattavada were closed by the panchayat authorities five months ago. Dalit men from the village continue to get their hair cut at salons in Munnar or Ellappetty, both nearby towns.
Earlier, bizarre practices like serving food in coconut shells or keeping separate tumblers for dalits in tea shops existed in Vattavada. Thanks to the joint efforts of local politicians and social workers, those practices were put to an end by 1990.
Vattavada has a population of 270 families from the Chakkliya commmunity and the rest belong to the Mannadiyar, Maravar, Thevar and Chettiyar communities.
Vattavada panchayat president Ramaraj said: "The practice of lower caste men cutting hair in separate salons has been there in Vattavada for nearly a century now. However as per the request of some Dalit youngsters, we convened a meeting with the community representatives recently to take a decision on the issue. But the barbers were adamant that they would not cut the hair of people from the Chakkliya community. The shops were closed following this," he said.
To curb the discrimination, Ramaraj said the panchayat would soon open a public salon near the bus stand at Koviloor, where men from all communities can get their hair cut. Although the issue of higher-caste men staying away from public salons still remains a question, Ramaraj said people belonging to upper castes, including him, will get their hair cut at the salon so that it will become a model for others to emulate.
Moreover, the panchayat has also decided to appoint a barber with progressive thinking from the barber community in Vattavada at the salon so that it will help others of his community change their mindset.
"The panchayat is also undertaking various community programmes where upper castes and Dalits are encouraged to drink and eat together and sit together to study. This is a slow process and we are putting our best efforts to overcome the issue," Ramaraj said.