The life of a tribal woman such as Dilith’s Casleton’s mother is tough. Historically, they worked all day and night for the family and were never given opportunities or decision making power let alone a moment to themselves. Dilith remembers her mother having “lots of self-respect and self-esteem; she was a great lady, always helping the family with smile. Her never defeating attitude, strength within and faith in God has inspired me to take up challenges in my life.” Dilith’s father supported their large family by working at the Loyola school for menial works, a respectable position which Dilith still feels pride towards. She comments that her father’s honesty and care for others taught her that contrary to social norms, she too could earn a good position in society and work for the betterment of others. Her parent’s illiteracy coupled with her family’s low social status presented challenges that ultimately encouraged Dilith to become the highly educated and mobilizing woman she is today. Her initiatives have transformed the tribal woman’s current place in society, and as Dilith explains, enabled many to come forward to make personal and family decisions, start self-help groups, raise an income, and send young girls to schools and colleges.
Growing up in Jamshedpur, Dilith had the lived experience and knowledge to contribute to this cultural shift professionally. Her journey began with the Jamshedpur Youth Organizations for Tomorrow’s India, an organizational leadership camp where Dilith became involved with groups that worked on several World Health Organization programs, from smallpox eradication to social justice.
Dilith completed her bachelor’s degree in education and economics whilst she and her husband taught in elite English medium schools. But when she considered the less fortunate children who did not have the opportunity for such a grand education, she decided to switch her attention to marginalized communities. Dilith comments, “I started working at the age of 18 and started supporting the family.... It always inspired me to work for the less fortunate. What I didn’t get, they should not be deprived of. This became a mission for me.”
Eventually, Dilith’s social and cultural upbringing led her to apply for a scholarship at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Out of hundreds of applicants, she was among the 10 candidates chosen by what is now the Tribal Services Department at Tata Steel. In 1984, TISS awarded Dilith her master’s degree in social work and offered her a position in Tata Steel’s Rural Development Department.
Dilith can still recall meeting the renowned Bharat Ratna, Mr. Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, (then, the Board of Directors of Tata Sons (Groups)) as a memorable moment in her life.
“Mr. JRD Tata always inspired me. Whenever he was in Jamshedpur, he used to visit the rural areas, interact with the rural people [and] spend time with them. His love for people and his interest towards the development of the people inspired me to [work in] the tribal rural development, along with his quote ‘what comes from people need to go back to people.’”
In the same vein, Dilith’s goal is to relay the voices of the tribal & rural communities to those operating at the national level. To accomplish this, she networked with the government and non-government organizations and interacted with the highest body of decision makers, lay, and religious leaders to formulate the policies related to rural and tribal women. Notably, she guided drafts of different new and innovative policies concerning the Catholic Church of India. The Jharkhand Youth Policy and Gender Policy is an example of such significant legislation that raises voice to girl-child issues and women’s empowerment.
Dilith currently serves as the Joint Secretary, Tata Steel Rural Development Society and Senior Manager, Rural Services, Tata Steel. Heading TSFIF’s Adolescent Health Program from 2000 to 2008 at in collaboration with Planned Parenthood Federation of America International (PPFAI) is one of several accomplishments Dilith has fulfilled in this role. This pilot project for minority, tribal and urban communities was later replicated as a best practice and case study for many other projects. Her leadership here led Dilith to become a resource person for issues on tribal women, and a mentor for related projects on the national level.
In addition to her position at Tata Steel, Dilith earned a fellowship with the Packard Foundation under which she, along with ICOMP (International Council on Management of Population Programs), developed a module for young people on reproductive health and leadership in Kualalampur, Malaysia. Here, she addressed the challenges youth face with unemployment and lack of information, education, and opportunity. As a fellow, Dilith worked to establish youth resource centers, integrated vocational training, and coaching in educational programs, where youths themselves took a lead and managed.
“Leadership means to facilitate, mentor and advocate for rights. It is also to build the capacity of the people and provide opportunity in planning, implementing and advocating. My role creates and mentors many more leaders.”
Dilith continues to empower young people in conjunction with developing political and social leaders within the tribal community. “They [the tribal people] are also taking an active part in the political leadership, apart from the social leadership. They have been elected as the ward members and village heads and have good positions in various NGOs and government organizations. They have knowledge about their rights and they are also creating pressure groups and raising their voices against violence and exploitations.”
Dilith’s accomplishments are with thanks and appreciation of her parents who raised her in a time full of challenges, and especially her hardworking and inspiring mother, to whom she credits her leadership skills. Today, her biggest mentors and supporters are her husband and children who stand beside her in every facet of life.