Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tsunami Breaks Villages, But Fails to Break Caste Walls

Remembering the Tsunami Experiences on its Third Anniversary Day

By N P Chekkutty

The tsunami disaster brought into sharp focus the deep chasm between the two Indias : the India that is marching confidently ahead in the comity of nations and the India that lags behind, discriminated against and sorely lacking even in basic necessities. Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, addressing the Confederation of Indian Industry in Kolkata, asserted that India’s decision not to accept external assistance and rely solely on its own resources to fight the calamity was an instance of turning adversity into opportunity, dalit workers who toured coastal areas of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were briefing the national media in Delhi on glaring instances of caste discrimination, even in the face of this horrendous tragedy.

Activists from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), Safai Karmachari Andolan and Sakshi Human Rights Watch, who toured dalit villages in the two states for over a week, brought back accounts of serious discrimination in aid distribution and rehabilitation between the fishermen community and dalits, both of whom were equally affected by the tragedy that struck on the morning of December 26. The tsunami knew only geographical boundaries, but we could see the deep and entrenched boundaries of caste dividing the affected people, said Paul Divakar, an activist from Hyderabad who is associated with the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, Delhi .

Dalit activists Paul Divakar, Bezawada Wilson (Safai Karmachari Andolan), Dr S D J M Prasad (Sakshi) and others toured the districts of Kanchipuram, Thiruvallur, Chennai and Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, and Prakasam and Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, for an on-the-spot assessment of aid delivery and rehabilitation in the weeks following the tsunami tragedy. They reported several cases of caste discrimination against dalit refugees in both states, even amongst the official machinery.

In a note prepared by the activists, based on their enquiries, they report extensive damage to dalit households and property in all the five districts they toured. Livelihoods have been destroyed and water sources contaminated by seawater. In many places relief camps were organised along caste lines, with separate camps for dalits, with aid distribution in the camps often erratic. There were instances of dalit hamlets being completely ignored by officials and organisations involved in aid delivery. Official estimates of loss of life and property have not been properly carried out in dalit areas; where they have, the losses have been underestimated. There were cases of unidentified bodies being buried close to dalit settlements despite the availability of land elsewhere. Restoration of drinking water, roads, public health services, communication facilities etc were done faster and more efficiently in fishermen areas while dalit areas were neglected. The extrication of bodies was done only by manual scavengers who are exclusively dalits. For this, ‘safai karmacharis’, as they are called, were brought in from neighbouring municipalities and corporations. They were offered no additional benefits and were paid only Rs 25 a day as additional wages. They had to work without proper protective clothing like gloves, face masks, etc.

The team of activists visiting villages in Prakasam and Nellore districts in Andhra Pradesh said relief deliveries of rice, medicines etc reached only fishermen communities, not dalit areas. At Urla Palem, in Prakasam, the district collector, local MLA and MP who toured the fishermen village did not visit the dalit colony which was also badly affected by the disaster.

Activists reported that assessments of dalit loss of property were underestimated as the dalits did not own pucca houses, unlike the fishermen community which was comparatively better off. They said revenue officials generally took the view that fishermen communities were the only ones that were financially destroyed by the tsunami, as they owned tangible assets like boats, nets, etc. In the case of dalits, who are equally dependent on the coastal economy and environment and who suffered just as much as the fishermen, the losses could not be quantified in the official sense. So dalits are at the receiving end of a double loss, as official estimates of losses from the tsunami do not take intangible losses, like damage to the coastal environment, into account.

The Urla Palem salt cultivators are an example. Around 500 dalit families in the village of Urla Palem were engaged in extracting salt from 175 acres of land near the sea, under the auspices of the Binginapalli Scheduled Caste Salt Cultivators Society. These fields are now completely submerged, filled with saline water and sand, and it will take at least another month to clean up the area and resume work. Villagers told the team of activists that officials assessing the losses had not visited the dalit colony once to find out what the situation there was.

A survey by the team in five districts of Tamil Nadu reveals the following information: In Kanchipuram, although 2,332 dalit houses were damaged, 365 head of cattle swept away, and 55 acres of land affected, no dalit family had received any aid. In Cuddalore, 20 dalits died, 614 houses were damaged, 13 boats lost and 19 head of cattle perished. But no aid was given to the dalits. In Thiruvallur (16 deaths, 102 people missing, 3,810 houses damaged), there was some aid distribution among the dalits. In Chennai (30 deaths, 2,825 houses damaged), aid has been made available. In Nagapattinam/Karaikkal (113 deaths, 1,914 houses damaged), aid has been distributed among the dalits.

Dalit activists say the discrimination does not seem to be a conscious effort on the part of the officials. It stems from age-old practices and prejudices. Separate camps for dalits and non-dalits were set up in places where there had earlier been incidents of conflict between the communities.

The activists also came across areas where camps had been jointly organised, and where communities lived together. One example was Poppukar camp, in Nagapattinam, where activists witnessed fishermen, dalits and members of other communities living together in a relief camp after the tsunami struck.

Activists say that once media attention is drawn to instances of discrimination, higher officials respond quickly. But lower down the ladder, apathy and animosity towards dalits still exists in many villages.

(The information detailed above is based on discussions with the team members in Delhi on January 12, 2005 . The situation regarding aid delivery is likely to have changed as local officials have been briefed about the survey’s findings)

(N P Chekkutty is a senior journalist based in Delhi )

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005

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