Sunday, January 02, 2005

How Right is it to review discrimination in crisis and even death?

by Annie Namala
[On behalf of the NCDHR/HRFDL/Dappu/SKA team that visited 2nd January 2005]

The Tsunami has left a trail of death and devastation. It will be a long time before lives and livelihoods are re-built, for some it will never be the same again. We went in with the deep sense of being part of the same humanity bonded by grief, compassion and courage to be confronted by some of the painful deep cracks in our society. While the Tsunami knew only geographical boundaries in its trail, we found the deep entrenched boundaries of caste and discrimination dividing the affected people even in their deep hours of grief and helplessness. We have also been torn by a deep sense of dilemma whether this is really a time one can bring up these issues? But deciding that deep challenges are also great opportunities, we place the facts of caste discrimination and untouchability practices that continue to prevent our society from emerging into its true potential. As this is also the time of re-building and re-constructing, this article is written with the hope that we can delve deeper to re-construct our society around egalitarian, non-discriminatory, democratic values with true honesty and stiff determination.

A team consisting of Mr. Karuappan, Mr. Vincent Manoharan, Mr. Paul Divakar, Mr. Sakya Umanathan, Ms. Gunaseeli from NCDHR, Mr. Rameshnathan, Mr. Ravichandran from HRFDL, Ms. Annie Namala from Dappu and Ms. Deepti Sukumaran and Mr. Bezawada Wilson from Safai Karmachari Andolan visited the Tsunami affected coastal Tamil Nadu from 28th December to 1st January.

The report is prepared by Annie Namala on behalf of the team.

The last days of 2004 left us with the devastating Tsunami. The death toll of tens of thousands, with the highest of children, rends those visiting the affected areas and even those seeing the devastation on news. Tsunami has taken a heavy toll on coastal people-their lives and livelihoods will take a long time, much effort to get on track again, and it will never be the same for many of these families. The silver lining on the dark clouds is the spontaneous response of people from across all spectrums rushing with cooked food, clothes and immediate necessities to the affected people. Nearby villages cooked food and rushed them to the camps, while from far away groups of people organized food items, dry rations, clothing, bed sheets and other necessary items along with volunteers coming and distributing them wherever they were guided. While the government was primarily involved with clearing the debris, removing the dead bodies and providing medical relief, civil society took on the job of providing other relief materials. From within the shadow of death and devastation, one felt the strength of being part of the same humanity, bonded by grief, compassion and insurmountable courage.

Is this time to bring to sound a discordant note in this symphony of grief, compassion and courage? I am not sure if I can be pardoned for bringing to light some deep cracks in the frame? I would not blame those who will lash out anger, criticize for being exclusive, judge as being righteous and least pass on for being untimely and credit me with a negative bend of mind. If I do not accept these genuine reactions, my effort only proves their point.

On 29th morning a team of us reached Tharangambadi, one of the worst hit areas. Dead bodies and carcasses were still on the beach. More than 300 people are dead in and around this village. Whole villages have been swept away, plastic pots and entangled nylon nets told their stories. The living had moved to the camp sites, while a few went around wailing looking for kith and kin. We went to the camps, local high school/kalyana mandapam opened up to house the people, where one could not go beyond a few sentences without people breaking down. In the midst of it all they acknowledged the support of known and unknown people from everywhere.

While returning from a camp, we came across Mr. Selvaraj from Kesavapalem who had come back for the first time after the Tsunami to survey what was left of his home and neighbourhood. He repeated how the sixty families of his colony in Kesavapalem had fled and was now in the camp at Thudaripet. He said that being Dalits and living about 50 meters away from the beach, the death toll in their village was about 9 people. He said seeing the water rushing in as a huge wall of water, the people just fled, holding on to nothing except their children and the old. The sound of the hissing water was enough, no one even dared take a second to look back.

Does distress and calamity blur caste lines?

We visited the Thudaripettai camp along with Selvaraj. It is situated about 8 km away from the Dalit village. The community hall and nearby church housed about 513 people from Kesavapalem, Velipalem, Karantheruvu and Pudupalem villages. To our surprise all were Dalit families with their children. The local angan wadi teacher and a few youth were organizing the camp. Niveditha transports running buses and a school in the area and the Muslim youth association from Parangipeta, a nearby village were providing cooked food. Some clothes had also been supplied and a nearby hospital had sent some medicines. They reported that even after 3 days, the government officials were yet to visit them or enumerate the 16 deaths that had occurred across the four villages and the loss of homes, animals, other livelihood, ration cards, pattas. Most of all they were concerned about the loss of books, uniforms and pens and how their children would be able to prepare for the coming exams in March 05. On asked why they did not go to other camps that were nearer in the town, they expressed their fear and anxiety of tensions that could erupt on caste and gender issues especially in these times of grief and relief operations. Fisher communities treat Dalits as untouchables and lower to themselves and Tsunamis do not erase the caste barriers of separate habitation, separate dining, separate water sources, pollution in touch and food and Dalit girls and women being of easy virtue. Hence they preferred to huddle together in their separate - exclusive or excluded space.

A hierarchy on the dead similar to that for the living?

Anxious about the need to bring these issues to the administration, we moved to the Divisional Revenue Office at Poraiyur, about 5 kms from Thudaripet. The DRO was away and other officers and staff were available. When we reported about the camp and the need for the government officials to make the visit, the TSO (responsible for the civil supplies and assisting the DRO) said that the government had instructed the families to go to the other three camps in the town as they could not operate another camp. As the families were not willing to do so, they were not in a position to spare any manpower to service the two camps in Thudaripettai.

Strange it is to note that these officials have to go beyond Thudaripettai to reach the relief camps in the town, Thudaripettai being nearest to the DRO's office. The officials line was that death and devastation of Dalits is not severe and should not distract the relief process at large. There was no time to look into the smaller issues now. There was very little one could do to explain that they have a bigger problem at hand if unfortunate incidents would occur in any relief camp and the Dalits were sparing them anxiety from another quarter and the least they could do was to meet out justice and perform their duty without bias in recording death and loss of every family be it fisher community or Dalits. Can one erect a hierarchy of deaths where death in the fisher family is more costly to the family than a death in the Dalit family or can we grade the dead like we grade the living along caste lines? We literally had to threaten the officials that we would go to the media before they agreed to visit and provide relief to the camps housing Dalits in Thudaripettai.

On 30th we visited the camp at Melaiyur near the historical Poompugar of the story of Kannagi and Kovalan. The local high school is doing a good job of organizing relief here and we met the headmaster and local panchayat president who were personally overlooking the relief operations. From our experience of the day before we asked them if there were any Dalits in the camp. They said they would not be able to say, there were a few and some had gone back to their villages and as Dalit houses were not destroyed like that of the fisher community, most Dalits would have gone back. Will sharing begin where needs end?

We next visited Vanagiri village with a large population where most 5000 are fisher community and about 300 Dalit population. A large number of the fisher community's houses have been destroyed and so also a large proportion of their boats and nets. There have been 32 deaths among the fisher folk and 1 Dalit death. About 60 Dalit houses have also been destroyed with loss to livestock and livelihood. Some of the families had come to the village and were trying to re-organise themselves.

The village has a main road from which parallel roads run separately housing Dalit and fisher community along the roads. Part of the Dalit colony is thus as near to the water as that of the fisher community. All have lost their livelihood as boats have been destroyed, no one will have the courage to enter the sea for some time to come and the agricultural lands have been inundated with sea water. All suffered the similar vacuum sense.

As we watched, trucks of food and clothing came to the village and were getting distributed among the fisher community. The Dalits who ran after the lorries came back empty handed. They further complained that since morning three-four trucks had come to the village and the fisher community did not allow any of them to give any relief to Dalits. The standard question was - how many deaths are there among you? Some people had brought idly and pongal in the morning, but though it was already past 11 a.m. no one in the Dalit colony, not even children had anything to eat. We went into the huts which were all wet and devoid of anything (clothes, utensils, fire- place, grains) that made it a home.

They showed us a freshly made heap of earth, behind one of the Dalit houses, where a dead body from the fisher community was buried without the knowledge or permission of the family. Just then three police officials came that way, as yet another body was spotted near the debris. The Dalits along with us reported to the officials about the buriyal, to be told - "why did you not stop it when it happened? After everything is over why do you want to make it an issue at this time?" The officials did not feel the need to listen to the Dalits and like most of us felt this is not the time to raise these issues. They did not feel that burying the dead body by the Dalit household was an uncalled for act of domination that needed to be addressed than asking the Dalits to keep their peace in the face of an injustice to them.

The stench of undying untouchability

Further the evening of 30th we came to Nagapattinam, which is the worst affected area. Officials report about 7000 deaths, while NGOs working in the area report close to 14,000. Many bodies are still buried in the sand and debris. The government machinery is busy trying to unearth and bury the dead bodies bringing in about 700 sanitary workers from Tiruchi, Palani, Pollachi and Madurai. We met with these members who work as permanent and contract municipal workers with these municipalities. On 27th early morning (around 3.30 a.m.) they were woken up at their homes and transported on lorries to Nagapattinam. Mr.Palani from Tiruchi Municipality said that when they heard about the devastation from their supervisor, they were more than happy to come and work as if it had happened to their own municipality. Would they not do it if it had been their own families?

They were however very unhappy the way they were treated - their day started at 6.30 am and went on till 6 p.m. They were housed in the local office rooms where there was not enough place and many of them slept in the bus stands and even on the footpaths. They were not given gloves, masks or gum boots so essential to go into the debris and unearth the bodies that were already blotted, rotting and all but falling apart as they tried to put them into the JCP and put them into the pit after 4 days, and ironically supplied to even passers by. The stench was unbearable and even the army found it difficult to do the operation after the first two days. As NDTV put it though cast away from society as the least and the untouchable, it is again these scavengers that do the work of unearthing the bodies that neither man nor machine is able to do and give it a burial. After the days work clearing debris and dead, they have no toilets to wash themselves, have not been supplied with soaps and have a makeshift bath under whatever way side tap or nearby tank.

They also complained that arrangement for their food is also not made and they were forced to request for food from the relief supplies, which was more charity to them. On the 30th when we visited them at 11 pm at night they were still waiting for their food, while the cooked food was being served to other relief workers and they had to wait for common dining is still not on the government agenda even after 50 years of abolishing untouchability in the Constitution. One of the top officials reported in the media that professionals from Neyveli Lignite Corporation would be brought in to help with the removal of the dead. While some of them did come, even on the 1st evening, it was the scavengers who were doing this work while the experts were standing at a distance or operating the JCPs. One has no quarrel with the bringing in of professional municipal workers to help at this calamity, but to look at only the scavenging community to do this and treating them the way when they are clearly doing something others are unable to do is an indication of the greater stench of an undying caste system of hierarchy, untouchability, discrimination and purity-pollution ideas, still buried under the sands of our Constitution.

Tsunami and after

The Tsunami has been devastating, bringing a sad close to 2004. Families will take a long time to once again get their bearings. Some may not recover during a life-time. We are all helpless and humbled by the power and fury of nature. There is however no time to lose, lives have to be re-built. Along with the re-building of the lives can we hope to re-build upon new values of equality, non- discrimination, respect for each other, ability to recognize each other's contribution into our lives, build upon a truly secular, egalitarian, humanitarian and democratic society envisaged in our Constitution and the best of human traditions possible. Truly re- build and re-construct with honesty and courage.


At August 18, 2013 at 10:32 PM, Blogger hkcdel said...

i heard ms namela on tv debate over discrimination against dalit and constant denial by society and govt.
i found her very impressive. best wishes to her.


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