Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Upper castes hog all the food and relief supplies

Khawda village is split strongly along caste lines and while the upper caste Hindus are well-provided for, the Dalits, Muslims and tribals in the region are starving and shivering out in the cold just a few metres away, says Varghese K George

Khawda (Gujarat), January 31

Though the earthquake did not discriminate between Dalits and upper castes, Muslims or Hindus, the people of Khawda village, 70 kms from Bhuj, are sticking with their caste and religious prejudices. While there is a well-equipped relief camp for the upper caste Lonas in the village, the majority Muslims starve and sleep in the little open space there is between the debris of their small houses and the Koli tribals beg on the roads, hardly 300 metres from the Lona relief camp.

"We care for our people, you fend for yourself. We can't be bothered," say the Lonas chasing away those seeking food at their camp, says Shambhu Ranjan, who went this morning to the Lona camp, where the relief trucks carrying food arrived.

The nearly 400 Kolis camping beside the road have only 25 kg of grains left and have not eaten anything today. "With this rice, we will have supper," says Shambhu. Tomorrow? "God knows," he says, resigned to his fate.

"Two local BJP leaders ensure that the trucks are unloaded and materials distributed only in the Lona camp," says a resident of the Muslim mohalla, adding, "We keep all that we have and all that we get in the masjid and people take according to their needs"

At the Lona camp, things are different. One sees huge stocks of food material - roti, dal, rice and buttermilk for lunch - the best food this correspondent has seen in the past one week. "We don't steal anyone's food. We don't get anything from the government. We receive material only from the Akhaya Purushottam Swami Narayan Trust," says an organiser, shrugging off uncomfortable questions about the starving Kolis nearby. What he said is partly correct. No government relief has reached the village at all.

However, more than 15 trucks went to Khawda and 30 neighbouring villages today, all from different voluntary organisations. "Khatau Dhanji and Yadavji Meghji, local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, ensure that the trucks are unloaded and materials are distributed only in the Lona camp," says Haji Allah Rakha, a resident of the Muslim mohalla, which has 100 households. The 100 households received 100 kgs of rice and 15 kgs of dal after the quake. "We keep all that we have and get in the masjid, and people take according to their needs," says Khan. The masjid is ready to fall any moment and the pious are offering namaz in the open grounds. If ever they needed divine intervention, it is today.

Not that life was easy for them before the quake struck. The villagers have always lived in areas segregated according to their caste. The Muslims and Dalits complain that even a water supply scheme of the government was terminated at the point where the Lona households end. As one reaches the village of nearly 5,000, the houses before the police station belong to the Lonas. Beyond the police station, there are Muslims, and after that, the Dalits and tribals.

As in most parts of Bhuj, there is no standing house in this village. The quake left 75 people in the village dead. After the earthquake, the stock in the local Food Corporation of India (FCI) store was distributed among the villages. "Everyday now, we go to the FCI godown to ask for grains and return empty-handed," says Yusuf Hasan Khatri.

Raji Ben Kima, a Dalit woman member of the Taluk panchayat is as powerless and helpless as other people in her community. "No one looked this side. We have no water, no food," she says. More than 200 people from her hamlet are also on the road, waving at every passing vehicle for a pouch of water or a packet of snacks.

In this village, just 40 kms short of the Pakistan border, Muslims have always been suspect in the eyes of the police for their alleged support to infiltrators. There are instances of police catching huge consignments of RDX from Pakistani nationals trying to cross the border. "On the surface, the Hindus maintain a harmonious relationship with us. But when it comes to action, we are always discriminated against," a Muslim resident says. Within the Muslims also, there is strict caste hierarchy.

The Lonas have managed to put up decent tents in the grounds of the local school. The tarpaulin roofs that the Kolis carried from their previous houses were great help - they are using it to make crude tents beside the road. The Dalits and Muslims have no roof over their heads, no quilt to prevent the night's cold and no relief has reached them.

In this illogically casteist village, Jogesh Bagchi, the provision merchant, is an exception. A higher caste, he offers the little stock he had in his shop on credit to those who cannot afford to pay.

It is sad, though, that a disaster of this magnitude could not unite the village. It has only divided them further. Those who have always been sufferers got more than their due share of this disaster. "If earth shakes, where do we go? To the sky?" asks Shambhu Ranjan. The preservers of the caste system are, however, in no mood to relent.

Source: Tehelka, January 31, 2001

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