Monday, January 03, 2005

Shunned, these Dalits gather tsunami dead

Nagapattinam: They are the "untouchables"; the lowest of the low in India's ancient caste system. No job is too dirty or too nasty, and they are the ones cleaning up the rotting corpses from last week's killer tsunami.

The overwhelming majority of the 1,000 or so men sweating away in the tropical heat to clear the poor south Indian fishing town of Nagapattinam, which bore the brunt of the giant wave, are lower caste dalits from neighbouring villages.

Locals too afraid of disease and too sickened by the smell refuse to join the grim task of digging friends and neighbours out of the sand and debris. They just stand and watch the dalits work.

Although it has been a week since the tsunami hit, and the destruction was confined to a tiny strip by the beach and port, the devastation was so fierce that several bodies -- located by the stench and the flies -- are still being discovered daily.

"I am only doing what I would do for my own wife and child," says M. Mohan, a dalit municipal cleaner as he takes a break to wash off some of the grime of the day's work.

"It is our duty. If a dog is dead, or a person, we have to clean it up."

Mohan and other sanitation workers from neighbouring municipalities are working around the clock to clear Nagapattinam, for an extra 50 cents a day and a meal.

The smell of death still hangs heavily, mixing with the sea breeze and the almost refreshingly tart smell of the antiseptic lime powder that has turned some streets and paths white.

More than 5,525 people -- close to 40 percent of India's estimated total 14,488 fatalities -- died along this small stretch of pure white beach, where the huts of poor fishermen were built down to the sand at the top of the beach itself.


Caste still plays a defining role in much of Indian society.

Over 16 per cent of India's billion plus people are dalits. Despite laws banning caste discrimination, they are still routinely abused, mistreated and even killed.

They do the jobs others won't -- they clean toilets, they collect garbage, they skin cows.

For Mohan, illiterate, uneducated and low caste, the only way to get a government job and the security and pension that come with it, was as a municipal sanitation worker.

For some Indians, untouchables are less than human.

Just over two years ago, five dalits were lynched near New Delhi after a rumour spread that they had killed and skinned a cow, revered as sacred in India.

An autopsy was conducted on the cow -- none were done for the dalits -- which confirmed the story their friends told: the cow had died of other causes and they were skinning it legally.

In the early hours of the tsunami disaster, Mohan and his colleagues worked feverishly to clear the thousands of bodies without gloves, masks or even shoes in some cases.

Now, they are better equipped. But no mask ever stops the gagging smell of rotting human flesh, which becomes almost overpowering as the body is dug out, lodging deep somewhere in the back of the mouth.

Each new body discovered is painstakingly prised free of the wet sand, torn palm thatch and debris, mostly by hand.

It is sweaty, backbreaking work. Shifting sand and rubble make just standing hard. It is done slowly, carefully and patiently with a delicate respect for the victim.

But there is no dignity.

The almost unrecognisable body of a naked woman, one foot still surprisingly wet, clean and white as if she had just stepped from a bath, is carried on a mat to the beach.

There, a small bonfire is lit with a tyre and some palm leaves and she is heaved on top. Another mat provides a pitiful attempt at modesty. Acrid, pitch-black smoke drifts to the sky.

No one knows who she was. With the fear of an epidemic, there is no time to find out.

Source: The Indian Express, January 03, 2005


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