Monday, February 19, 2001

Discriminating the distressed

Between the lines
By Kuldip Nayar

What differentiates a democratic polity from other systems of governance is the sense of equality, which people cherish. They have the confidence that the government, even without pointing it out, will give them a fair deal. They feel protected under the law of the land and the constitution ensures them that there is no difference of treatment by the State Those living in India cannot believe or even brook the thought that the situation can develop in such a way where the government would be discriminating rather than dispensing. That is what has been happening in certain parts of the earthquake-affected Gujarat. The expectation was that the state would be more solicitous and come heavily on those who had tried to make a distinction. Also, there has been no action against those who have shown bias.

Stories emanating from Gujarat do not make a happy reading. The criteria for distribution of relief help is said to have been caste, creed and religion. High caste Patels have not allowed relief vehicles to reach many places because the population living there belongs to lower castes which, the Patels describe as "the disease-ridden people."

A non-government organisation, after touring the affected area in Rajkot, Surendranagar and Jamnagar, had said that cases of "class discrimination" in relief distribution was "assuming alarming proportions."

Dalits in Rajpur are bitter about it because they believe that the Thakkars and Jains, belonging to the upper castes, have "got everything they required." At other places, there have been protests against the "oppression of entrenched caste society."

Some areas where the Muslims live have been purposely left out without any relief or rehabilitation work. The discrimination against them has been open. The press has complained about it. Some newspapers have even cited examples, alleging how the RSS and the VHP activists have "hijacked" relief supplies in the Kutch.The government appears to have connived at such flagrant instances of bias and prejudice.

Muzamil Jalil, covering the earthquake for his multi-edition English daily, has been a victim of anti-Muslim bias. One state BJP leader has publicly criticised him for sending "anti-national" reports. One of his stories was on the protest demonstration by minorities against discrimination in the distribution of relief aid. This was reported by other papers as well. But Jalil was so harassed that his paper had to tell his tale of woes on its front page and point out how he felt handicapped in his work.

That the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's demand to reject the Vatican aid has gone uncondemned by the ruling BJP indicates the extent to which the prejudice is being allowed to be injected into the body politics of the state. Why should he voice of Archbishop Cyril Mas Baselles be the lonely one in protest? Why should the foreign office, opening its mouth more often than not, remain silent when VHP insults the Pope? What about the BJP high command? It is prickely enough to pounce on the President if he does not agree with its thinking on the constitution or other matters. But when it comes to foreign dignitaries the party does not show any sensitivity and allow insults to be heaped on them.

Apparently, there is some truth in the allegations of discrimination. Certain things have gone wrong. Instances of injustice are glaring. Otherwise, senior leaders like V.P. Singh and Inder Gujral, both former Prime Ministers, wouldn't have urged Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to ensure that the relief material was distributed without a distinction. Delhi and Ahmedabad are conspicuous by their silence. Had they even mentioned that there were complaints which would be looked into, the odium of bias would not have stuck to them. The Muslims and Dalits would have felt pacified.

During the super cyclone in Orissa 15 months ago, there was not a single complaint of prejudice based on caste or creed. The state was cluless and bungled all the way during the relief and rehabilitation operation. The government is still lost in the problems it has created on its own. But even then, none said that such and such locality had been left out because it was that of the Muslims or the Dalits.

"We are poor and that has made the Centre differentiate between our state and Gujarat," a parliament member from Orissa has complained to me. Another MP from the same state has pointed out that Orissa did not get "its due" because at the itme of super cyclone, it was under the Congress government and it could not, therefore, expect a "generous help" from the BJP-led coalition at the Centre.

Both charges may not be fully correct but there is a grain of truth in them. New Delhi woke up late and did not give initially the importance which the calamity should have received. Yet the government in Bhubaneswar cannot be absolved of the blame. It was tardy, first in the distribution of relief goods and then in mapping out the rehabilitation programme for the victims. There is, however, no doubt that the worst sufferers of the cyclone have been the have-nots. In contrast, most of the earthquake victims are the haves. That may be one of the reasons why the cyclone disappeared from TV screens quickly while the quake continues to have attention.

For reasons unknown, New Delhi did not dwadle over foreign assistance when it came to Gujarat. In fact, it sent fervent appeals _ the Prime Minister also made a statement _ to outisders to send aid and lifted all restrictions and tariffs on it. Why did not Orissa get the same access by the world? The foreign office's slow reaction has become an integral part of outside response to calamities in the country. It wasted the first 24 hours after the quake in Gujarat over the rigmorale of rules and regulations.

The case of Orissa was worse. New Delhi did not straightaway foreign assistance. Subsequently, after several days, the policy remained ambiguous, allowing assistance but not admitting that it was coming. In fact, there is still no firm policy on foreign assistance at the time of disasters. Somehow there is diffidence about it. It is not understandable why there should be a reluctance in accepting relief when there is a situation beyond our resources. We too, with our limited means, have sent relief to the victims of earthquakes and other tragedies outside the country.

And, as usual, New Delhi has taken advantage of the devastation. The surcharge of two per cent on income tax is nothing short of that. An earning of Rs. 1,200 crore from the surcharge is a drop in the ocean. Why start taxing piecemeal when the budget, which will propose different taxes, is only a few days away? The government has not yet made clear whether or not the tax-payers who have suffered in the Gujarat earthquake would have to pay the surcharge. The entire state should be exempted. And one would argue for transparency in the relief aid collected from within India and received from outside. So much money was collected for the Orissa cyclone and many times more for Gujarat. There has to be some ways to let the the public know how much was collected and how was it distributed. This particularly applies to the PM's Relief Fund. Probably, it is audited but that is not enough. A detailed status of receipts and expenditure should be presented to both houses of parliament. Such a step would stop the prevailing impression that all is not well with the collections made and spent.

Adversity often brings out the best or worst in man. He may find his greatest humanitarian self or sink abysmally. There are best of examples in Gujarat. It is a pity that the government has spoilt its image by introducing politics to the tragedy which has engulfed all, whatever the religion and whatever the status.

Source: Ambedkar.org, February 19, 2001

Thursday, February 08, 2001

Caste marks survive India's killer quake

LAKHOND, India -- There's one structure that can't be shaken in India, even by a killer earthquake -- the caste system.

While the body count continues and the country begins a national census, traditions remain. The town of Lakhond has six distinct tent camps for the earthquake homeless, all separated by caste or religion.

The needs are overwhelming. The quake killed more than 17,000 and left behind 1 million homeless, according to a United Nations estimate. More than 60,000 were injured and survivors are in need of medical care, food, water and shelter.

Yet when relief groups showed up to hand out aid, town leaders presented them with six lists of residents: four different Hindu castes, the untouchables -- lower even than the formal caste system -- and Muslims. All the camps are separate.

Relief effort a challenge


With the pattern repeated across the zone in western India ravaged by the January 26 quake, relief groups find themselves wrestling with the country's ingrained social hierarchy to get help to everybody -- even untouchables.

"The whole issue of making sure all the castes are included has been a challenge," Graham Saunders of Catholic Relief Services said Wednesday as workers handed out buckets, soap and other aid to people in the town.

Officially, India's traditional caste system -- a social hierarchy with Brahmans at the top and the so-called "untouchables" at the bottom -- has been illegal for decades, and discriminating against someone on the basis of caste in employment and housing, for example, can wind up in court.

Unofficially, however, the social order in the countryside remains strong, determining how most people live, with whom they marry and socialize.

So while modernization and urbanization have blurred the lines between castes somewhat in the cities, in places like the quake-damaged villages of Gujarat the divisions are clear, and greatly complicate the already enormous challenges of getting relief to victims.

Hierarchy hampers distribution

In the aftermath of the disaster, necessities are scarce and everyone is desperate for help. Those at the top of the pecking order use their connections and prestige to get the pick of the goods.

"Whatever the distribution of aid, it first goes to the upper castes," said Mayuri Mistry, a Catholic Relief Services worker in Gujarat.

The social hierarchy is only one of the problems with aid distribution. There have been complaints in the quake zone that political connections are playing a big role in determining who gets help.

The French group Medicins sans Frontiers has a cultural anthropologist in Bhuj, near the epicenter, to coach workers on how to navigate the region's social landscape.

"Indian villages look like a mess, but you know by the house what caste lives there," said Pilar Duch. "You cannot think that a village is homogeneous. If you don't know that, you can make a mistake."

Nationwide headcount

India will start a national census in most of the country this week, despite the quake, although counting will be delayed in the disaster zone.

In a country with a population of 1 billion, the census, conducted every 10 years, is billed as the world's largest administrative exercise.

While China also counts its population, its census is carried out by different agencies, including Communist Party units, commune leaders and factory heads, unlike the single authority that carries out India's count, Banthia said.

Source: CNN, February 8, 2001

Quake can't shake caste system

LAKHOND: The streets are strewn with rubble and house after house is a useless heap of stone. But there's one structure that can't be shaken in India, even by a killer earthquake - the caste system.

The town has six distinct tent camps for the earthquake homeless - all separated by caste or religion. When relief groups showed up to hand out aid, town leaders presented them with six lists of residents: four different Hindu castes, the untouchables - lower even than the formal caste system - and Muslims. All the camps are separate. With the pattern repeated across the zone in western India ravaged by the Jan. 26 quake, relief groups find themselves wrestling with the country's ingrained social hierarchy to get help to everybody - even untouchables.

``The whole issue of making sure all the castes are included has been a challenge,'' Graham Saunders of Catholic Relief Services said Wednesday as workers handed out buckets, soap and other aid to people in the town. Officially, India's traditional caste system - a social hierarchy with Brahmans at the top and the so-called ``untouchables'' at the bottom - has been illegal for decades, and discriminating against someone on the basis of caste in employment and housing, for example, can wind up in court. Unofficially, however, the social order in the countryside remains strong, determining how most people live, with whom they marry and socialize.

So while modernization and urbanization have blurred the lines between castes somewhat in the cities, in places like the quake-damaged villages of Gujarat the divisions are clear, and greatly complicate the already enormous challenges of getting relief to victims.

In the aftermath of the disaster, necessities are scarce and everyone is desperate for help. Those at the top of the pecking order use their connections and prestige to get the pick of the goods. ``Whatever the distribution of aid, it first goes to the upper castes,'' said Mayuri Mistry, a Catholic Relief Services worker in Gujarat.

The social hierarchy is only one of the problems with aid distribution. There have been complaints in the quake zone that political connections are playing a big role in determining who gets help. The needs are overwhelming. The 7.7-magnitude quake killed more than 17,000 and left behind 1 million homeless, according to a United Nations estimate. More than 60,000 were injured and survivors are in need of medical care, food, water and shelter. The French group Doctors without Borders has a cultural anthropologist in Bhuj, near the epicenter, to coach workers on how to navigate the region's social landscape. ``Indian villages look like a mess, but you know by the house what caste lives there,'' said Pilar Duch. ``You cannot think that a village is homogeneous. If you don't know that, you can make a mistake.''

Her colleague Olaf Pots spent the day Wednesday moving from village to village northeast of Bhuj, assessing needs and handing out blankets, tarps for tents and water buckets. But it was more than just a matter of dropping piles of aid off at each village and moving on. First he met with village leaders and figured out how many people lived in the town and what castes were represented. Then came the hard part: deciding whether to hand over the goods to the top man in the village, distribute them among the leaders of the various castes in the town, or simply go door to door to make sure everyone got their share. In Gada, a hilltop hamlet, Pots had a lengthy negotiation with village elders, peppering them with questions about the castes there and wringing from them guarantees that they would distribute the aid fairly.

A key to success is making sure there is enough to cover everyone in a village, so there is no fighting over short supplies. For example, the sub-chief of Gada, Jiva Manda Rabari, assured Pots that he would see that the village's four untouchable families would get their share - provided supplies were sufficient. ``You have to give us enough if you want them to get something,'' he said, adding that he would turn away deliveries that could not provide everyone with some relief. In some towns, international organizations rely on local groups to police distribution. In nearby Traya, Pots struck a deal with the village elders to let a member of a local women's development group supervise the handing out of blankets, tarps and water bottles.

In Lakhond, the leader of the untouchables there, Ramesh Kumar Hamirbhai, said he had no major problems with the distribution of aid so far, though he said the tradition of separating aid deliveries by caste caused unnecessary complications. He said he preferred the way some international groups were operating, by gathering everybody in one place and handing out relief one person at a time. ``This is the best system,'' he said. ``This way, each and every person gets help.''

Source: Indian Express, February 8, 2001

Tuesday, February 06, 2001

Caste tension in Gujarat over distribution of relief aid

There are reports from some villages in Kutch that aid is being organized on caste and community lines. The Kutch administration has denied this but there are clear signs of people mobilizing themselves on narrow caste and community lines.

A number of Islamic organisations have set up relief camps in Bhuj as they claim their community is being ignored by the administration. "The first help that we got was from Muslims from Godara and then it was Jamaat-e-Islam. So far, nothing has come from the government. Our families continue to sleep in the open in the cold without tents," maintained a quake victim. Kutch has a large Muslim population and several backward caste communities like the Kolis, many of whom have also alleged that relief material is monopolized by the more powerful communities.

In Nagor, a village barely 10 kms out of Bhuj, the first signs are beginning to appear. The 4,000 villagers have split into separate communities and set up independent kitchens. "We have separate camps for separate communities. The Nagarias, the Kolis and the Harijans all live in separate camps," said a villager.

If certain communities aren't getting enough aid because of caste and religion, there are those who are being prevented from helping the relief mission. Ronnie D'Souza, Coordinator of Kutch Village Trust, said, "In Bachau, when missionary sisters went, certain organisations group stopped them and said why are you here."

The administration however has denied that relief is being handed out on community lines. Suresh Mehta, Industries Minister, Gujarat said, "There is no question of community aspect. The question is that of humanity and the planning of the government is totally on the ground of humanity. All are justified and all are under one ruling system with the same framework."

The quake may have been a great leveller in many ways, but now as the shock is wearing off, religious and caste differences have resurfaced yet again, giving an ugly tone to the relief operation in Kutch.

Source: NDTV, February 6, 2001

Sunday, February 04, 2001

Face and features of a child reveals caste: BJP

SAMIRAN SAHA

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad will soon prepare a blueprint to facilitate adoption of children rendered destitute after the earthquake. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has welcomed the move, subject to one condition: that the children will be given only to those couples who belong to the same jati (caste). To ascertain to which jati a child belongs to, the BJP will go by the "face and features of the child."

A senior BJP leader said, "Bachcha to usi jati me diya jayega (Children will be given to parents from the same community)." He added: "You can make that out from the face and features of the child, which jati he or she belongs to."

According to Indian adoption laws, only Hindu families can legally adopt a child. However, the BJP and the VHP are not saying anything about the adoption of Muslim children who have been rendered destitue. Bhuj, the worst affected by the killer quake, has a large Muslim population.

Onkar Bhave, VHP joint general secretary, said, "The attempt will be to rehabilitate children in a family where they can seek parivaraik atmiyata (a homely atmosphere) and also where the children get similar surroundings like what they had before the quake. At this point of time we will not like the children to be handed over to parents who reside outside Gujarat," he said.

Face and features of a child can tell which jati he/she belongs.

Sadhavi Ritambara, a prominent sangh Parivar leader, has also offered help to children who have been rendered homeless following the quake, Bhave said. "But the children will not be taken over to Ritambara's ashram at Mathura now. The shift may lead to psychological disorder or mental trauma," he added.

Another organisation, Bapu Ashram, Bhave said, has also offered to help 25 children.

Senior BJP leader J.P. Mathur, while welcoming the VHP initiative, said the adoption move is to make sure that the children rendered destitute are rehabilitated properly. "The VHP will have two schemes - adoption and sponsoring a child on the lines of non-government organsiations."

However, some confusion persists over the sponsorship issue. The BJP said that the person sponsoring a child will need to pay Rs 10,000 for education and meeting other needs of the child.

Mathur said the sponsorship money is being taken to ensure that even if the sponsors stop financing the needs of the child, the deposit will help take care of the need of the child till the time another sponsor is found.

It can be noted that the VHP had launched a similar adoption and sponsorship scheme in Punjab while militancy was at its peak in the state.

Source: The Newspaper Today, February 4, 2001