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


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