Tsunami Cannot Wash Caste Discrimination Away
- Subject: Tsunami cannot wash caste discrimination away
NAGAPATTINAM, JANUARY 6
There's something even an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale
and a tsunami that kills over 1 lakh people can'tcrack: 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 31other 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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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.