Friday, January 07, 2005

Tsunami can't wash this away: hatred for Dalits

In Ground Zero, Dalits thrown out of relief camps, cut out of food, water supplies, toilets, NGOs say they will start separate facilities.


NAGAPATTINAM: There's something even an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale and a tsunami that kills over 1 lakh people can't crack: the walls between caste.

That's why at Ground Zero in Nagapattinam, Murugeshan and his family of four have been living on the streets in Nambiarnagar. That's why like 31 other families, they have been thrown out of relief camps. That's why they are hounded out of schools they have sneaked into, they are pushed to the rear of food and water lines, given leftovers, not allowed to use toilets or even drink water provided by a UN agency. That's why some NGOs are setting up separate facilities for them. Because they are all Dalits.

They are survivors from 63 damaged villages—30 of them flattened—all marooned in their own islands, facing the brunt of a majority of fishermen who are from the Meenavar community—listed in official records as Most Backward Class (MBC)—for whom Dalits are still untouchable.

The Indian Express toured the camps to find an old story of caste hatred being replayed in camp after camp:

• In the GVR Marriage Hall Relief Camp, Dalits cannot drink water from tanks put up by UNICEF. The Meenavars say they "pollute" the water.

• In the Nallukadai Street Relief Camp, a Meenavar Thalaivar, or leader, grabbed all cartons of glucose biscuits delivered by a Coimbatore NGO. The Dalits were told: these are not for you.

• At Puttur Relief Camp, the Meenavars have hoarded family relief kits, rice packets, new clothes and other relief material. When the Dalits asked for some, they paid a heavy price—they had to spend the night on the road.

• At the Neelayadatchi Temple Camp, Dalits are not allowed inside the temple, especially when rice and cash doles are being handed out.

• Dalits from three villages taking shelter at Ganapati cinema hall in Tharambagadi are thrown out every night because the Meenavar fisherwomen say they did not "feel safe" falling sleep with Dalits around.

• So 32 ostracised Dalit families took shelter in the GRM girls' school in Thanjavur. But four days ago, even the school asked them to vacate saying it was due to re-open.

Those doing the discriminating brush all this aside. Says Chellayya, a Meenavar fisherman at a Tharambagadi camp: "These Dalits have been playing mischief, going back to the villages and looting houses. That's why we don't want them around here."

To which Dalit activist K Darpaya says: ‘‘What's left in the houses for Dalits to take? And where will they keep the loot even if we assume they have taken something? In the relief camps? On the road side?"

There's an irony here. For, the district administration and relief agencies have to depend on the strong network of Meenavar fishermen to disburse aid and relief. But so rampant has the discrimination become that relief in-charge for Nagapattinam district Shantasheela Nayar, Secretary, Rural Development, is deputing District Adi Dravidar Welfare Officers to relief camps.

"They will look into the problem and report back on what can be done to put an end to this. We certainly do not discriminate but if the fishermen themselves are doing it because of their local status, what can the government do?" says Nayar.

Talk to some of the victims and instead of bitterness and anger, there is grief and helplessness.

"In Nagapattinam, three relief camps we went to denied us shelter saying they had no space. At the Nataraja Damayanti high school, the watchman refused to let us in," says Murugeshan.

At first, the families did not understand why but as door after door slammed in their faces, it became clearer. They approached their local municipal councillor K Tilagar. "He assured us we would be given shelter soon but he disappeared," says another survivor Anjamma.

In the neighbouring GVR camp, Dalit fishermen said they are being nudged out of relief and compensation queues. "We are inside the camp but kept in the far corner. Whenever officials and trucks come to give food, we are left out because nobody allows us to get near the trucks. Some men form a ring around us and prevent us from moving ahead in the queue," says Saravanan, a Dalit survivor.

"The Meenavars are more privileged as they get to sleep inside the rooms and are first to receive food and water. We have to sleep outside in the verandahs or in the open ground," says Jivanana.

Kesavan, a Dalit of Nambiarnagar, says he was prevented from drinking water from a plastic tank put up in the hamlet on Monday. "We are forced to bring water in plastic cans from outside the village. The Collector's office has put up the tank here and provides clean water but it is not for us," he says.

V Vanitha, a Class X Dalit student, says adolescent girls are prevented from using toilet areas at Tharambagadi. "Small children have no problem but it is an ordeal for us. There are no toilets here and they prevent us from going to the area which serves as an open toilet," she says.

Says activist Darpaya: "Dalits are not allowed to drink water from tanks put up by UNICEF. Even in relief camps, Meenavars don't want to sit with Dalits and have food. Some of them manage to get rice but other relief items coming in like biscuit packets, milk powder and family household kits are denied to Dalits."

Says M Jayanthi, a coordinator of South Indian Fishworkers Society (SIFS): "Dalits are facing discrimination in all relief camps where they are present. But society does not want to raise the issue as it would complicate things further. Without making it public, we are opening separate facilities for Dalits exclusively," she says.

Sevai, an NGO-based in Karaikal, Pondicherry, 20 kms from Nagapattinam, is the first organisation to address the issue.

Coordinator R Indrani says: "Since Dalits are not receiving sufficient food and water, we have started cooking for them in separate kitchens. They come from wherever they are taking shelter and we provide them whatever they want. We are also considering separate camps for them."

Several NGOs which noticed the problem raised the issue during their meeting with District Collector M Veerashanmugha Moni. "But no one is willing to take up the matter at the field level as this could complicate things. We don't want friction between the two castes by trying to address it during this crisis," says the team leader of NGO Accord, which is working among Dalits.

Source: The Indian Express, January 07, 2005


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