'Untouchable' caste find themselves deprived of tsunami aid

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The Independent Online

International aid agencies in India have been horrified to find, even amid the suffering caused by the tsunami, some survivors being refused access to basic relief because they are considered "Untouchables".

International aid agencies in India have been horrified to find, even amid the suffering caused by the tsunami, some survivors being refused access to basic relief because they are considered "Untouchables".

Accounts have emerged of members of the former Untouchable castes not being allowed to drink clean water from a tank provided by Unicef because other castes believed it would pollute the water in the tank. Dalits, as the former Untouchables are known today, have been thrown out of government relief camps by the other survivors staying there.

Even as people around the world have sent aid donations to tsunami survivors, members of higher castes have prevented the Dalits from using basic relief supplies, and the Indian government has been accused of not doing enough to prevent this injustice.

Dalit children were not even allowed to use the basic open latrines at relief camps, according to Janyala Srinivas, a reporter for The Indian Express. Dalits at one camp who asked for some of the food supplies intended for everyone that the fishermen were hoarding were thrown out and had to spend the rest of the night in the road.

In many areas it was reportedly the Dalits who had to dispose of the bodies of the dead because high-caste Hindus feared they would be polluted if they handled the corpses.

Ashok Bharti, a campaigner who helps to co-ordinateDalit organisations, said: "They want us to clear out their dead bodies and faeces but when it comes to accepting relief they want to ensure that we are nowhere around, simply because they cannot stomach the idea of sharing anything with us."

An international relief worker said: "I'm afraid this comes as no surprise. This problem existed long before the tsunami. I remember stories of Dalits being killed because of some rumour they had killed a cow."

Untouchability was made illegal in India after independence. But, decades after Mahatma Gandhi told his followers that he "would far rather Hinduism died than untouchability lived", the practice is still widely followed all over India, and Dalits face daily persecution from birth until death.

Even as Dalits were being denied tsunami aid in Tamil Nadu, at the other end of India three Dalit youths - the youngest a boy of 12 - were forced to drink urine by upper-caste landlords. The landlords urinated in the youths' shoes, then forced them to drink it, because a Dalit boy had been in a fight at school with a boy from a higher caste.

The persecution of Dalit tsunami survivors has been mostly at the hands of other survivors, fishermen from the slightly higher Meenavar caste, the community in mainland India hit worst by the tsunami. Most of the Dalits in the affected area are either subsistence farmers or make their living on the fringes of the fishing industry, carrying heavy loads of fish from boats or selling them in the market. The farmers are ruined: their fields are waterlogged with salt water which will wreck the soil, their livestock drowned. The fishing industry has halted, leaving those who work in it penniless.

The situation was worst in the immediate aftermath, when all homeless survivors were put together in the same relief camps, according to Vincent Manoharan of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, which has tried to highlight the discrimination. "Now the government is a little more responsive, since we highlighted this," said Mr Manoharan. The Tamil Nadu state government set up separate relief camps for Dalits and other survivors - the only way it could ensure the Dalits were not abused.

Now the survivors have returned to their towns and villages, where temporary housing is being built for them, so the relief camps are no longer a problem. But Mr Manoharan said aid to the Dalits was still being blocked. "Where the Dalit community lives close to the fisherpeople, the aid is not getting through to them. When an NGO vehicle tries to drive to the Dalit area, the fisherpeople stop it and say, 'Where are you going? We need aid here.' They take the aid and say they will distribute it, but they only give the worst things to the Dalits."

Mr Manoharan says he has reports of this happening in Vanagri and Tranquear, both in Nagapattinam district, and in some of the villages of Pondicherry. He also says the government is not being even-handed in its own aid efforts. "The speed at which they're restoring power and laying roads to Dalit areas is not the same as they're doing it for the fisherpeople," he says. "Tamil Nadu has applied to the central government for 48 billion rupees [£590m] of emergency aid, but only 130 million rupees is for non-fishing communities like the Dalits."

The Tamil Nadu government contends that the fishermen have been worst affected. And it is true that their community suffered by far the most deaths - about 10,000, while 100 Dalits are confirmed dead and another 500 missing. But Mr Manoharan says the majority of the Dalits have lost their livelihood, and unlike the fishermen, many of whom have assets such as boats which can be repaired, the Dalits live on subsistence incomes and have nothing to fall back on.

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