Friday, January 07, 2005

India's untouchables denied aid and shelter

India's untouchables, reeling from the tsunami disaster, are being forced out of relief camps by higher caste survivors and being denied aid supplies.

More than 6,000 people, including 81 Dalits or untouchables in India's rigid caste hierarchy, died when tsunamis struck southern India's coastal district on December 26.

The ferocious wall of sea water destroyed swathes of farm land and the Dalits, who were daily wage earners working in agricultural lands, no longer have any employment.

At Keshvanpalayam, the Dalits had only flattened homes to show while survivors elsewhere enjoyed relief supplies such as food, medicines, sleeping mats and kerosene.

No government official or aid has flowed into the village which houses 83 Dalit families.

Cranes and bulldozers cleared the debris of a neighbouring fishing community, but they are yet to reach the Dalit village.

Chandra Jayaram, 35, who lost her husband to the tsunami, said her family had not received the promised government compensation of 100,000 rupees (£1,211 ).

"At the relief camps we are treated differently due to our social status. We are not given relief supplies. The fishing community told us not to stay with them. The government says we will not be given anything as we are not affected much," Jayaram said.

S. Karuppiah, field coordinator with the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation, said in some of the villages the dead bodies of untouchables were removed with reluctance.

"The government is turning a blind eye," he said. "When Dalits bury the dead they are not given gloves or medicines but only alcohol to forget the rotten stench."

Another activist, Mahakrishnan Marimuthu, who heads the non-governmental Education and Handicraft Training Trust, said tsunamis dealt a double blow to the caste.

"They lost their jobs, houses and relatives. On the other hand the social discrimination is proving to be worse," he said.

The government denied the allegations and said it was providing relief to every tsunami-affected family.

"There is no intention of closing down any camps and we are providing relief to each and every family. We will provide temporary shelters as these relief camps are getting overcrowded," said Veerashanmugha Moni, Nagapattinam's senior government administrator.

The United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF said government, relief agencies and aid workers did not discriminate against the Dalits but the caste issue always exists.

"All the aid going in is distributed the same way to all survivors. The social discrimination has been there during normal times," said Amudha, who heads a team of UNICEF volunteers in Nagapattinam.

"After the disaster happened it is still continuing. That is nothing new," she said.

Source: The Telegraph, January 07, 2005

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