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India’s Dalits refused access to tsunami relief

13 January 2005

Dalit communities in tsunami devastated coastal regions of southern India are facing exclusion from relief efforts due to caste discrimination which continues even in the face of massive and indiscriminate natural disaster. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) has received shocking reports of the neglect of Dalits (often referred to as ‘untouchables’) and apathy with regard to their plight by government officials and other affected communities. The treatment of Dalit communities was described by MRG as ‘wholly unacceptable’ in a region where day to day caste discrimination remains widespread and frequently goes unchallenged.

Reports have been received of Dalit communities being sidelined for aid delivery, neglected by government officials, excluded from relief camps, bypassed in the delivery of food, water and medical care, and forced to carry out the worst tasks of dealing with bodies and clearance of debris with little or no protective clothing. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) has been closely monitoring the situation in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, and stated that: ‘Dalits are doubly victimized, firstly by the natural disaster and secondly by human made discrimination’. NCDHR and press reports have highlighted numerous documented instances of discrimination against Dalits since the tsunami struck, including:

  • Dalits cannot drink water from tanks put up by UNICEF at some relief camps as – other groups say they ‘pollute’ the water;
  • Dalits have been excluded from some relief camps resulting in much of the relief materials failing to reach them;
  • dead bodies of other communities have been buried in the living areas of some – Dalits;
  • in the Nallukadai Street Relief Camp, cartons of glucose biscuits delivered by a Coimbatore NGO were taken from Dalits who were told: ‘these are not for you’;
  • at Puttur Relief Camp when Dalits asked for family relief kits, rice packets and donated clothes and other materials, they were force to spend the night on the road;
  • at the Neelayadatchi Temple Camp, Dalits were not allowed inside the temple, especially when rice and cash donations were being handed out;
  • 32 Dalit families taking shelter in a girls’ school in Thanjavur were asked to vacate the building on the pretext that it was due to re-open just days after the disaster;
  • officials have been apathetic about registering deaths among Dalits, establishing the conditions of Dalit victims and have been reluctant to register missing Dalit persons or respond to appeals for relief.

The NCDHR described government officials who have a ‘caste-oriented’ mind set which results in discriminatory and apathetic treatment of Dalits, regardless of the situation. They state that this has resulted in widespread neglect of Dalit victims and even instances of heightened abuse as they are forced to carry out the bulk of the clean up operation. Reports describe workers who have been given no protective clothing or adequate shelter and have not been provided with basic sanitation and health facilities. While loss of life was heavier amongst fisher communities, Dalits have suffered significant loss of life, loss of shelter, property and livestock, and the inundation of their agricultural land. ‘Without fair and equal treatment, already marginalized Dalit communities will be hard pushed to re-establish their lives and livelihoods’, stated MRG spokesperson, Graham Fox.

In a statement of 11 January, 26 human rights experts and Special Procedures mandate-holders of the UN Commission on Human Rights, recognizing possible inequality of relief assistance, called for swift attention to the needs of the most vulnerable populations ‘without discrimination or obstacles’.

According to Minority Rights Group International, relief and rehabilitation efforts aimed at the victims of the December tsunami must be fairly and equitably applied and no discrimination should be tolerated. MRG supports calls by the NCDHR and International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) for full recognition of the plight of Dalit victims in tsunami hit areas of India and to ensure that Dalits get immediate attention and access to all relief and rehabilitation measures, commensurate with the treatment accorded to all other affected communities. The Indian government is called upon to take all necessary steps to ensure non-discrimination in all aid and rehabilitation efforts.

Notes for editors

  • Dalits, often called ‘untouchables’, may face discrimination and exclusion in all fields of life. They are often relegated to the worst, lowest paid jobs within society, many having to clean streets and public toilets or survive through manual scavenging. Dalits are vulnerable to numerous forms of ill-treatment and abuse by members of higher castes, including segregation, beatings and torture, and well documented cases of killings over issues such as land disputes. Anti-Dalit discrimination within the police system and wider society remains a major barrier to securing the rights and dignity of Dalits. Organizations including NCDHR and IDSN, of which MRG is a member, work for the eradication of caste-based discrimination and caste-like discrimination both in India and globally, recently gaining important consideration of the issues at the UN level where they have long been neglected. Caste-discrimination affects some 260 million people in Asia alone.