International Herald Tribune, 29 August 2007|
Letter from India: In flood lands of India, caste prejudices thriveBy Amelia Gentleman
NEW DELHI: A bleak postscript to the misery of millions affected by catastrophic flooding this year in Bihar State came last week with the story of an upper-caste police officer accused of drowning two lower-caste girls in the river after they stole firewood from his orchard.
The officer was suspended and a compensation payment of 100,000 rupees, or $2,400, was given to the girls' parents, S.L. Das, the local police superintendent, said, adding that he believed the girls were chased, not thrown, into the river.
For human rights activists in India, this is a horrifying illustration of a widely accepted truth. When communities are in trouble, caste prejudice deepens.
Aid agencies have noted that in Bihar, just as during previous natural disasters in India, even the distribution of aid makes its way more swiftly to the powerful upper-caste sections of society than to the groups known officially as Scheduled and Backward Castes.
A rapid survey of the flood-affected regions of Bihar, conducted by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights earlier this month, concluded that Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, were the worst hit by the flooding, which has shattered the lives of 14 million across this state, and killed 2,253 across India.
"Relief has not reached them, and if it has reached, it is scanty," said Paul Divakar, the author of the report. The relative neglect of low-caste villagers was a reflection of how, even at a moment of shared hardship, the rules of caste dictate how Indian society operates, he added. "The culture of discrimination which runs through Indian society intensifies in times of crisis."
The way that low-caste groups are excluded from the system of distribution is complex and is almost never a crude case of victims being refused help, point blank, as a result of their social standing.
Aid distribution is often done in town centers, where well-off, upper-caste groups are more likely to live. Those who are geographically marginalized in low-lying, remote villages, far from the national highways, find that supplies dwindle by the time they arrive in town, if they are able to make the journey. Divakar said the ever powerful concept of untouchability meant that Dalits were sometimes forced to wait until other groups had received aid.
"There is also a sense, even among officials, that these communities manage to survive on nothing at the best of times, so have no real need of help in times of crisis," he said. "They are not made a priority."
Malar Raj, an official with Save the Children, who recently returned from Bihar, said she had sensed an apathy within the government in its attempts to help the most marginalized. "They don't bother to reach out to these communities," she said. "These people are voiceless. They are not even staging protests to demand relief. If the upper middle classes had been affected this badly, the authorities would have found a way to reach them faster. But here there was no sense of official urgency."
In the wake of an earthquake in 2001 and a tsunami in 2004, several studies revealed that the lowest social groups received less assistance than those higher than them in the social order. Latha Caleb, a Save the Children official who has studied the distribution of post-tsunami relief, noted that because Dalits were often physically excluded from their villages, living in a separate colony on its fringes, and because the village head tended to be upper-caste, representing primarily the upper-caste villagers, aid was not fairly shared. There was also a reluctance among higher-caste victims to share emergency accommodation with lower-caste neighbors, she said.
Two weeks after their hamlet of 17 houses was turned into an island village by the violent flooding which swept through Bihar at the start of the month, the 200 residents of Chak Ganoli were still waiting for help from the government and aid agencies.
These villagers, members of the musahar, a subcaste at the bottom of the Indian social hierarchy, are stigmatized and outcast, even by other Dalit groups, and are so accustomed to being marginalized that there was barely any surprise here at this latest example of neglect.
Known as rat-catchers because their permanent state of near destitution traditionally forced them to forage for food, these families may not have been passed over deliberately, but after centuries of being excluded from society, they found themselves ill-equipped to fight for the assistance they urgently need to survive.
None of the villagers was literate, and they got no help from their elected village leader. "He is from a high caste and doesn't care about us. He never comes to visit us here," Sukan Sadar, a laborer from the village whose house was destroyed by the rains, said this month. The fields are so waterlogged that there is no prospect of work for several months, leaving the villagers with no income. "I can only buy food when I work. If the rains go on for much longer we will starve. No one helps us because of who we are."
Across the grey lagoon which has swamped the rice paddies and lychee orchards around the village, the outskirts of the nearby northern Bihar town of Dharbangar were just visible, where aid agencies were distributing emergency relief to hundreds of thousands of people made homeless.
But there was no way to get there without a boat, and the few canoes navigating the vast expanse of water charged high fares to ferry villagers to the other shore. These landless laborers, the most deprived inhabitants of Bihar, which is the most backward state in India, could not afford to pay. The two bags of low-grade rice deposited on the shore of their island at the start of the crisis by a passing police officer had run out, and the village children were beginning to complain of hunger.
Dasni Devi, a young mother of six children, aged 2 to 12, four of whom huddled around her, streaked with mud, their stomachs visibly distended from hunger, said two others were unwell and sleeping, fighting off high fevers.
"We tell them that someone will be coming soon with food," she said. "It's not true, but it stops them from crying."