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Perspective
January 12, 2005
Dalits being left out? (12/01/2005)

Friends,

If I were sitting in front of my laptop in Berkeley at this very moment, surfing the Internet about the latest situation in TN, I am sure I would also be fuming about reports of widespread discrimination against Dalits in the relief operations. However, being in the thick of the coordination efforts here, and having worked closely with NGOs who are actually supervising the relief distribution in Nagai and other places, and having interacted with government officials in charge, we want to bring another perspective to the debate.

Jan 9:
We first read reports of discrimination four days back. In a presentation to an emergency plenary session in Mumbai at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on the situation in TN, Bhoomika underscored the double jeopardy that Dalits seem to be in yet again, when this society needs them to do its dirty work, and yet is unwilling to equitably share even relief supplies with them in a calamity.

Dalits from Karur in Nagai for Clean Up Work
Dalits from Karur in Nagai for Clean Up Work

Jan 10 am:
We traveled to Trichy at the invitation of Henri Tipaghne of People's Watch, and member of NHRC--with whom Bhoomika Trust has been working closely-- to participate in the second meeting of a coalition of NGOs organized by PW and TN Women's Collective (see www.trrcindia.org.) The issue of discrimination against Dalits was a major item of discussion. We saw a petition addressed to the Nagai Collector, dated Jan 5, signed by HRFDL and NCDHR (Dalit H.R. organizations). We observed that the petition not only talked about instances of immediate discrimination, but also had a long list of ongoing Dalit grievances that are well known.

Jan 10 pm:
We shared the issues raised in Trichy with the NGO Coordination Cell on the grounds of the Nagai Collectorate. NGOs running the Cell--who had obviously been deeply absorbed in the first few days serving the numerous fishing communities affected by the calamity--were at first taken aback that such discrimination could be occurring on a large scale. However, when local volunteers who had fanned out to all the villages during the day assembled at night to share their daily reports, it became obvious to everyone there that there indeed serious gaps in relief reaching Dalit hamlets. Volunteers were immediately given the task of focusing on the issue the following day. At the same time, word went out to the senior-most government representative in Nagai, that media reports of discrimination had indeed been verified. (The volunteer in-charge of looking at relief to non-fishing communities told us that he had been unsuccessfully looking for two days for Dalit-oriented NGOs to join him at the NGO Coordination Cell to help him identify unserved hamlets.)

Jan 11:
We decided to independently visit the remote village of Vanagiri, Sirkali District, where discrimination had been reported. Here is the story as we saw it: The main fishing village has over 800 families, where there were 65 deaths and numerous loss of fishing gear and homes. The Dalit hamlet outside the fishing village has 75 families (involved in subsistent agriculture). There were no deaths among them, but they had lost some homes, and their land had been inundated, perhaps making it uncultivable for a long time. They were being served cooked food by Sevai, Trichy and the Red Cross until the day before. As we entered the small community hall in the Dalit hamlet, we saw them distributing the first rations they had just received since the calamity-5kg rice, 150 gms toor daal, and TWO potatoes per family. The Talaivar told us that these rations may last them two days. However, his main concern was 'what next' for their livelihoods? Cultivable fresh land, tilling equipment (mumtis!), and cattle were top on his list. While we did not hear him complaining about discrimination, as outsiders, we could feel it in the air!

Vanagiri Dalits Sharing their First Rations
Vanagiri Dalits Sharing their First Rations

We then spent considerable time with the fishing community, where the situation was obviously much better, yet they were not swimming in rations either. They were dealing with issues of how to care for the widows and orphaned children, confronting their fears of going back to the sea, and about what the government compensation package for fishermen might look like. They seemed to have immediate rations available, and the panchayat had decided NOT to distribute more ration kits to families until they had enough for ALL the families (same story in many fishing villages). What was significant was that they themselves were saying that all the relief trucks in the first few days from various outside agencies were making their way into the more visible fishing village, and the Dalit hamlet had obviously remained invisible to those who had no local knowledge. In the most telling commentary of local attitudes, the village government engineer told us proudly that "As of today, we have even started supplying rations to the Dalits'!"

Jan 12:
We raised the issue of discrimination with the Chief Relief Commissioner and other government officials in Chennai (among other items discussed) and shared some of the pics we had taken at Vanagiri. It was obvious by now that the word had reached the highest levels, and corrective measures (as far as relief supplies are concerned) had been initiated already. By nightfall, the Nagai NGO coordination cell had reported that ten trucks with supplies exclusively for the Dalit hamlets had been dispatched.

Update Since Jan 12:
Bhoomika continues to look for communities (often partially affected villages, including Dalit hamlets) who have been left out of relief, and we will continue to send supplies where needed to the extent of our capabilities-more such areas have been identified by our own volunteers near Cuddalore and near Chennai. We have also been raising the issue of Dalit hamlets being left out of relief in various forums, and we have been bringing out the issue of compensation for lost agricultural land in various meetings with the government and on TV shows.

Hope this gives a picture of the on-ground situation. Surely, outsiders like us can do a lot to supply emergency relief to the unreached Dalits and to other partially affected communities. But can we do so without exacerbating local community relations, especially between the fishing communities and their Dalit neighbors? Is there a role for outsiders in this crisis--a unique opportunity, some might say, when the nation's attention is focused on Tamil Nadu--to draw attention to the entrenched social attitudes at the village level, which during normal times leads to daily and innumerable violations of Dalit lives?

For Bhoomika Trust
Raju Rajagopal
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