Tsunami or Not, Dalits suffer Discrimination
NAGAPATTINAM, India, Jul 12 (IPS) - When giant waves swallowed thousands of people on the coastline of southern Tamil Nadu state in December 2004, death played a great leveller.
But the rehabilitation efforts that followed failed to kill discrimination and relief disbursement has been taking place according to caste, India's ancient social hierarchy.
Affected populations in Tamil Nadu, the part of India hardest hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami, have been waiting for effective assistance to rebuild their lives, but Dalits (the broken) who are at the bottom of the hierarchy are excluded. ''There is no road to our village. No one knows we live here and so nobody reaches here or even tries to come,'' rues Poongavanam, a Dalit resident of Pattinacherry village in Nagapattinam district, home to most of the 10,000 victims who died in Tamil Nadu and where there is a concentration of Dalits.
''We are literally starving. Our crop is spoilt. The land is full of salt. Our stored grain is finished. There is no food. Several of our neighbours have gone to their relatives elsewhere. But how long can they keep you?'' says Pitchai of nearby Kuppam village.
''How long can you be dependent on doles from others? We need work to keep ourselves and our families going,'' he adds.
Relief has been distributed by the government, political parties, non- governmental organisations (NGOs), local churches or community associations ever since the roiling sea destroyed everything more than six months ago.
But Dalits who are mostly poor and illiterate, cannot document their economic and property claims and so have been unable to access relief and also compensation and relocation schemes.
They are without effective local or political clout, are mostly servants to higher-caste people and remain subservient about their demands, needs and rights.
Some 10,000 people were killed, 650,000 displaced and 200,000 houses damaged in the four zones -- Chennai, Cuddalore, Kanyakumari and Nagapattinam -- that make up these districts in Tamil Nadu.
Nagapattinam took the brunt and accounted for 6,065 deaths. It also has a big Dalit population, an estimated 130,861 living in 24 villages out of a total population of 1.5 million.
Many Dalit families have not received compensation for death because they were not in the first list drawn up after the tsunami struck which entitles victims to receive compensation, and prepared on Dec. 27 and 28.
Attempts by groups or individuals to lend a hand to Dalits have been blocked by upper-caste groups, and local officials have refused to help them.
''I have personally seen food and clothing being distributed by agencies to members of only one community in Nagapattinam, while at the end of the same street, the Dalits continued to wait in hope - and in vain,'' says M. Solomon Bernard Shaw of the National Service Scheme, a semi-autonomous programme under the University Grants Commission.
Adds T. Karunakaran, vice chancellor of the Gandhigram Rural Institute at Dindigul: ''When I went with my team of volunteers to some villages near Colachel and Nagercoil, I was stopped by local functionaries from distributing any aid personally. They wanted all material to be handed over to them.''
Dalits who work on catamarans and trawlers are ''not even allowed inside relief camps by the typical representatives of local bodies or communities,'' says M. Louis, state coordinator of the tsunami relief committee.
Meetings of Dalit victims in some places have been disrupted by the disconnection of power supply.
However, there has been some attention - some say lip service - to rehabilitation of and assistance to Dalit victims -- given the fact that the Tamil Nadu Assembly faces elections in February 2006.
In some villages in Nagapattinam, Dalits have been given temporary shelters. But discrimination is evident from the location and the quality of material provided to them.
For instance, the Dalits' temporary shelters are near graveyards or garbage dumps without proper sanitation or lighting facilities.
Their roughly 14 sq metre shelter, for a family of six to 10 members, are made of poor-quality cardboard sheets. Plastic roofing has long blown away in the strong wind and rain while asbestos sheets make the shanties unbearably hot during summer, so that many have simply left.
In contrast, the temporary structures built for the fishermen are not only stronger but have a regular supply of water and electricity. They have community centres with television sets.
Several non-government groups have donated big potable water tanks for community sharing. But Dalits are not allowed to draw water from these taps, because other caste people say this ''pollutes'' the water.
A Dalit activist, Shekhar, claims no relief material can reach the Dalits because members of the Irular tribe, a local fishing community, stopped vehicles sent by NGOs, saying the supplies were meant for them.
The government has focused its relief work on coastal communities of fishermen, who suffered most casualties and greater loss of livelihood.
Relief, as per government instructions, is to reach those who have been ''hit'' by the tsunami -- meaning a death in the family, mainly the breadwinner or those who lived within one kilometre from the coastline.
But for each such ''tsunami-hit'' area and family, there are five surrounding ''tsunami-affected'' areas where people supporting the fishing community -- carpenters, traders, shopkeepers, cleaners, craftsmen, farmers and farm workers, ice plant owners, fish net and boat menders -- have lost their sources of income.
Most of the residents of these affected areas are share-croppers or landless agricultural labourers, tenants, workers on trawlers, daily wagers in salt pans, farmlands and fishing villages - and Dalits.
Like the unfathomable expanse of an angry sea, the contradictions and dilemmas of caste politics in India are like an expanding canvass of broken ideals.
''The intention of the government to fight casteism is not exhibited at all, neither does it show any concern, except for rhetoric,'' argues Henri Tiphagne, executive director of the Madurai-based Peoples' Watch, a human rights organisation.
Anguish takes many forms. Being a Dalit is perhaps one of them in this supposedly free and modern society -- tsunami or no tsunami. (END/IPS/AMF/SB/JS/RDR/05)
Soma Basu wrote this piece for the Asia Media Forum, a project hosted by IPS Asia-Pacific.