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Tsunami Cannot Wash Caste Discrimination Away

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    Subject: Tsunami cannot wash caste discrimination away URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=62212 JANYALA SREENIVAS NAGAPATTINAM,
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 21, 2005
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      Subject: Tsunami cannot wash caste discrimination away
      URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/full_story.php?content_id=62212

      JANYALA SREENIVAS
      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
      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.
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