Puri: A board outside a temple for the Goddess Kali orders Dalits to stop at this point. "Harijans can pray from here," it declares. The warning sign was put up in August last year after three schoolgirls entered the shrine to offer Prasad to the Goddess, an icon of empowerment and Shakti.
The caretaker of the temple in Orissa's Puri district offers no apologies for the discrimination. "It is against tradition," he says, "Our fathers did not allow harijans to step inside the temple, and we will also bar their entry. We will die rather than let it happen."
''This is highly objectionable. How can they do it? I will take some time out personally and go there myself and take action against them," said L Punia, Chairman of the National commission for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes.
Now, based on NDTV's report this morning, the Centre has asked the Orissa government to provide more information on why this was not stopped.
Chandana Bhoi is one of the young girls who visited the Goddess, triggering a vengeful response. "There should be no discrimination. We can do the same work as the upper-castes," she says. "We pray to the same Gods, so why are we treated so badly?"
Her entire village waits for the answer. Ranapada is home to 80 Dalit families who earn their living as sharecroppers. But since the temple controversy last year, they have been given no work. Upper caste leaders from surrounding villages decided to teach them a lesson. Landlords in the area took back the land given for cultivation to the Dalits.
"They did not call us to cultivate their land - neither women nor men," says an out-of-work farmer. "We used to work in their fields and share the harvest. Then they stopped hiring us."
When they wakened to the problem, local officials employed the Dalit farmers under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or NREGA. They spent months working on constructing a road. But they have been paid just half of what they are due. Wages not being handed out are a common problem with NREGA - middlemen or contractors are also known to pocket part of the money that's due to hires.
The Dalit farmers say elected representatives in the area are from upper castes - and will not protect them at the risk of upsetting their vote bank. Sanjay Dasverma, who represents the area, refutes this allegation. "There is no vote-bank politicking in my constituency. I always try to keep the constituency above these issues," he says.
But the board outside the temple proves that there is little political will in undoing the wrongs inflicted here - or in challenging archaic and illegal conventions rooted in the caste system. A young couple in their wedding finery crouches outside the temple, seeking the Goddess' blessings, forbidden from drawing any closer. Nobody blinks.