Ranjit Devraj:

India’s rigid social divisions based on caste may have taken a knock as a result of intervention by voluntary agencies involved in relief work in areas hit by the Dec. 26 tsunami which left over 10,000 dead and at least 600,000 either homeless or destitute on the coast of southern Tamil Nadu state.

Officials at the UNICEF and other aid agencies now on the job in Tamil Nadu said they did not discriminate between one group and another while carrying out relief work and distributing aid. Bijoy Basant Patro, spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said that experience in India has shown that Dalits are almost invariably the most vulnerable people during a natural disaster and also the least likely to be able to access aid when it becomes available. But he also said that natural disasters offered a rare opportunity to improve the lot of Dalits and other marginalised people simply because that is about the only time their discrimination gets any attention at all.

Following the tsunami disaster in Tamil Nadu, newspapers and television channels were full of stories of how Dalits were being denied aid supplies and forced out of relief camps by higher caste groups who refuse to dine with them or live under the same roof even if it is just a tin sheet. News reports indicate Dalits are left out in distribution due to the cruel fact that as ‘untouchables’ they are not allowed to enter the halls of worship.

On Sunday Cabinet Secretary B K Chaturvedi said the concerned state governments were being asked to ensure that Dalits and other weaker sections of society were not deprived while providing emergency relief and other essential aid. Curiously it fell upon the Dalits to carry out much of the initial work in the immediate aftermath of the disaster such as carrying away dead bodies and disposing animal carcasses because upper caste people consider such work taboo and socially degrading. Ironically, after performing such tasks for a society struck by a colossal disaster the Dalits are shunned because the upper castes consider them as having done ‘’polluting’’ work. Seldom is gratitude expressed to these people for having prevented an epidemic in the aftermath of the tsunami. The Indian Constitution, introduced more than half-a-century ago, banned the shunning of Dalits. But members of this group, who now number 160 million, have continued to suffer all manner of indignities at the hands of upper caste Hindus. But because the Constitution also reserved seats in Parliament and jobs in the government for Dalits, many individuals have risen to prominence in public life and are for the first time insisting that the rights of their brethren be respected.

Among them is Meira Kumar, currently Minister for Social Welfare and the leader of a controversial demand for reserved quotas in the burgeoning Indian private sector. Kumar has also warned voluntary agencies that unless they accept a quota of Dalits in their organisations, the government would not support their activities. As far as tsunami relief work goes, the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR), which represents 300 Dalit bodies across India, has demanded that its representatives be present wherever relief and rehabilitation is taking place. — IPS