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

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