The Indian government should ensure that tsunami victims receive assistance in an equitable manner without caste or religious bias, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of discrimination in tsunami-stricken areas against Dalit (so-called untouchables) communities by the authorities as well as by some aid groups and local communities.

Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to make all efforts to counter caste or religious discrimination throughout the entire post-tsunami process of relief, rehabilitation and redevelopment.

“In the aftermath of the tsunami, the Indian government should try to help Dalits who may be excluded from equitable relief and employment opportunities,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately ensure that there is equitable and unbiased rehabilitation by including Dalit rights activists, both male and female, in rehabilitation committees at all levels.”

Nearly 10,000 people died in India in the tsunami on December 26, most of them in Tamil Nadu state. Most of the immediate victims were from fishing communities, perceived as coming from higher castes, who live along the coast. Dalits who live further inland lost their livelihood and access to water because their wells were filled with seawater.

According to many press reports and an on-site investigation by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), a highly respected Indian organization, some higher-caste fishing communities refused to share emergency shelter and rations with the Dalits. The NCDHR investigation also documented incidents in which authorities in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu provided Dalits with less relief and support than other victims. Dalit areas have been the last to have electricity and water supplies restored during rehabilitation efforts. NCDHR also cited allegations that officials are discriminating in providing financial assistance to the families of deceased Dalits.

“The government should ensure that all government and NGO activities take steps to combat caste discrimination in the longer-term reconstruction efforts,” said Adams. “India has excellent legislation to prevent caste-based discrimination, but it should implement these laws to avoid adding the problems of caste-discrimination to the misery caused by the tsunami.”