Saturday, January 08, 2005

Caste away

Crack down on those who discriminate against Dalits in relief operations.

Disasters test a society in diverse ways. They take proof of the country's preparedness to spring to the rescue of people struck by nature's fury. In the relief and rehabilitation operations undertaken, they extract an account of the norms and principles society lives by. In extremis, every social faultline, every crevice between assertion and action is magnified — for government and civil society, for survivor and faraway observer. This is why reports of almost systematic exclusion of Dalits from the relief operations in Tamil Nadu are doubly distressing. As this newspaper documented on Friday, in many relief camps in Nagapattinam families are being turned away simply because they happen to be Dalit. They are refused water from tankers, relief material distributed at temple camps, and refuge in makeshift shelters.

There are any number of provisions on the statute books that allow the authorities to step in to ensure access to the needy, irrespective of their caste — and equally importantly, to ensure that perpetrators of this kind of discrimination are punished. In the tsunami-affected villages of Natapattinam, those perpetrators are said to belong to a majority fisherman community that is providing the manpower in distribution of relief supplies. This can in no way be used by the administration as an alibi for inaction. Reaching assistance to the last man is the government's duty — and in this case, clearly, it involves battling caste oppressions. It could, in fact, be a transformative process.

The aftermath of disasters often highlights the interface between distress and hope. This one is no different. In recent days, victims — and in the way of most natural calamities, the poorest and most vulnerable — have spoken of chances of a different future. In Nabiarnagar village in Nagapattinam, fishermen and women have pleaded with relief workers to take their children away to a better education, to the possibility of jobs less at the mercy of the elements. Temporary shelters and common kitchens, too, could be instruments to strike at caste prejudice. natural calamities render the most vulnerable the most badly hit. They already live on the margins, making compromises with safety buffers for the sake of survival. Once disaster strikes they have the slightest recourse to any form of insurance. This is why they must be at the centre of rehabilitation measures. It would, however, amount to a criminal offence if, in the delivery of relief, they were sidelined because of their caste status.

Source: The Indian Express, January 08, 2005

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