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VI. Caste-based discrimination

As was apparent in the aftermath of the tsunami, caste-based discrimination remains endemic in India, despite five decades of legislation to end it. Fundamental to the idea of humanitarian assistance is that aid be distributed to all in need without discrimination.97

The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation-Tamil Nadu reported that during the initial stages of the relief process, Dalits were not provided proper and adequate guidance on how to gain admission to relief camps, were not given a fair share of relief aid, and were sometimes abused when they demanded equal treatment.98 NCDHR, in an appeal issued on January 9, 2005, noted:

Dalits are doubly victimized, firstly by the natural disaster and secondly by “human made” discrimination. Since Dalit victims do not have the adequate voice and strength to approach either the government or other agencies and organizations who are in the field of reparation with various resources, we earnestly and sincerely request all those who are committed to contribute to the restoration of normalcy and rebuilding of livelihoods, to open their minds and hearts to the daily suffering and humiliation being faced by Dalits. We demand that you ensure that rehabilitation occurs in an equitable and unbiased manner and that Dalits receive their share of assistance that is their right.99

Perhaps the most serious widespread and systemic problem that arose during the relief effort was discrimination against Dalits and tribal groups by individuals from higher castes.100 Most local aid workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that it was not the government or the relief agencies that were primarily to blame for discriminating against the Dalits, tribals, and other lower caste groups in Tamil Nadu, but rather the higher caste groups within the community itself, particularly the Meenavar fishermen.

As Nachetra Das Balu, a Dalit leader in Thangambadi village, Tamil Nadu, said:

Dalits are treated as servants of the fishing communities. Dalits work on the land and they work in the sea. They have some working relationships, but there is no equality. The Dalits do not have equal status.101

Members of tribal communities also faced similar problems. People from the local fishing communities, claiming that the supplies were for them, stopped a local NGO that tried to take emergency rations to a settlement inhabited by members of the Irular tribe in Tamil Nadu.102 Others were simply forgotten in the initial days after the tsunami because the tribal groups, at the bottom of the social order, are unused to lobbying for their rights.103

Both national and international press reports of discrimination against Dalits abounded in the first weeks after the tsunami. In one case, a fishing community refused to share water provided by UNICEF and other relief organizations, claiming that the Dalits would “pollute” the water.104

Members of the fishing communities also denied Dalits access to relief materials supplied by the government and NGOs. Murlidharan, a Dalit rights activist, recounted that, “We had problems earlier as relief materials could not be taken to Dalit areas because the fishing community refused to let us pass.”105

After persistent reports of caste-discrimination arose in the media, the government belatedly focused attention on assessing damages in Dalit communities, including the loss of livelihood of Dalit laborers in fishing villages, saltpans and farmlands. Emergency rations were distributed to these communities as well.106 Nevertheless, as set out below, complaints about discrimination against Dalits and members of tribal communities during relief operations were a constant refrain throughout the area visited by Human Rights Watch in January 2005.

In Vadakattai village in Pondicherry, Dalit villagers said they were close to starvation. The village chief, Pakkirisamy, told Human Rights Watch: “Before the tsunami, we had some grain stored. Now we have finished it. Our crop is spoilt and the land is full of salt. We have no food.”107

In another area called Manikapanga, the Dalit residents, all of them agricultural laborers or tenant farmers, complained of lack of access to relief and rehabilitation assistance, although they had received initial emergency relief. When Human Rights Watch reached the hamlet, village leaders were waiting by the road, hoping for aid. S. Salaya, the village council chief, told Human Rights Watch:

There has been no loss of life or houses in our hamlet, but the land is destroyed. Our food has finished. Our hamlet is far from the main road, and the fisher community, living in shelters on the main road, does not allow any relief to come through. And when we go to the main road for help or to ask the government for work, the fisher community tells us to go away.108

Members of tribal groups were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in terms of receiving aid. A settlement of 200 tribal Irulars in Cuddalore district had not received any government assistance as of January 30, 2005, when Human Rights Watch visited the hamlet. In fact, two Irular children from the hamlet were killed in the tsunami, but the families had not received compensation as of January 30, 2005.109 In other non-tribal villages visited by Human Rights Watch, however, compensation for deaths had already been distributed.

This Irular community had originally been bonded laborers and, several years prior to the tsunami, had been resettled near the coast after being freed. They gradually learned to fish and earn their living by fishing in the rivulets leading into the sea. The tsunami flooded the streams, washing away fishing implements and boats and jeopardizing the entire community’s livelihood. Narayanswami, the community’s leader, told Human Rights Watch:

We want boats so that we can go back to work. Now we are dependent on other people, and not many come here because there is no road to our village. Hardly anyone even knows we are here. We went to the government office and they said they would help, but we still have nothing.110

Dalit rights activists in Tamil Nadu reported that the Meenavar fishing communities, which considers itself of a superior caste, prevented Dalits from staying with them at the relief camps and in some cases, forcibly threw them out. In other cases, the Dalits themselves preferred to live separately, fearing discrimination. Even now, the two communities are not sharing temporary shelters for displaced persons.111 Both the government and the NGOs explained that Dalits had been separated from the fishing communities in relief camps and shelters for displaced persons because forcing them to stay together would have likely led to conflict within the camps. Dr. Umanath, an administrative official of Nagapattinam district told The Indian Express: “A crisis like this is no time to experiment with casteist and religious amity.”112

Even some non-governmental organizations felt that it would be wrong to try and change traditional mindsets when people were trying to cope with the loss of family and livelihood. Raju Rajagopal of Bhoomika Trust said that there were cases of caste-based exclusion, but he also said: “You can’t use a disaster to correct hundreds of years of discrimination.”113 Others argue that there is no better time, because minds, the press, and funds can be concentrated on the problem.

If the Meenavars are relocated further inland, the two communities will become close neighbors, which may lead to conflict. Dalits told Human Rights Watch that if the fishing communities are moved further inland, they will not want to live close to Dalits and will use their greater political clout to push the Dalits out. Complained K. Chithravelu, a Dalit plumber from Vadakattalai Street:

We are frequently fighting with each other. Living close to each other is not a choice for us. At times we have been friendly, but if they shift here, we will be pushed away.114

In other words, there would be a knock-on displacement effect. Murlidharan, a Dalit rights activist, warned:

There is already division among the caste groups. If the fishing communities are moved further inland, they will have to pass through Dalit occupied areas. That will create a further problem.115

To resolve this, some Dalit rights groups have recommended that Dalits should be given a separate settlement during rehabilitation to ensure protection from upper castes.116 However, if the Dalits are forced, once again, to live apart, it will only perpetuate the tradition of social exclusion and caste-based hierarchy. Instead, there should be an attempt to help resolve existing caste-based conflicts and all caste groups should be encouraged to mingle freely and share living spaces. Caste barriers have been broken down to a large extent in the cities, where choice of residence is not usually determined by the caste of the neighbors.

Even if, as some commentators have argued, disasters may not be the time to press for social change, the government has to recognize the principle of non-discrimination in delivery of emergency humanitarian relief.117 Even in cases where private actors are responsible for discriminatory behavior, it is the government’s responsibility to take all reasonable measures possible to end such discrimination. At the very least, post-tsunami rehabilitation and development efforts should include public information campaigns (including media) to eliminate traditional caste prejudice. This effort should involve government officials, political parties, NGO representatives, and community and religious leaders.

[97] See, e.g. UN Guiding Principles, principle 4(1) & 24(1) (“All humanitarian assistance shall be carried out in accordance with the principles of humanity and impartiality and without discrimination”); Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (1965).

[98] Report from a Fact Finding team sent by the National Campaign for Dalit Rights, Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation and Safai Karamchari Andolan, January 2005. Dalits complained that when relief trucks arrived, the higher caste fishermen communites would not allow any distribution of supplies to the Dalits, asking, ‘How many deaths are there among you?’

[99] National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, An Urgent Appeal, January 9, 2005.

[100] See “India: End Caste Bias In Tsunami Relief,” Human Rights Watch, January 14, 2005 [online],

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Nachetra Das Balu, Nagapattinam, January 29, 2005.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with M.Nizamudeen, Federation of Consumer Organization, Cuddalore, January 30, 2005.

[103] “Tribals Ignored in Tamil Nadu’s Tsunami Relief Effort”, BBC News Online, January 15, 2005 [online], (retrieved May 9, 2005).

[104] Janyala Sreenivas, “Tsunami can’t wash away hatred for Dalits,” The Indian Express, January 7, 2005 [online], (retrieved January 25, 2005).

[105] Human Rights Watch interview with Muralidharan, Nagapattinam, January 29, 2005.

[106] Independent report by R. Bhagwan Singh, journalist and member of a Concerned Citizens Initiative monitoring relief efforts, January 15, 2005. Copy available with Human Rights Watch.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview, with Pakkirisamy, Pondicherry, January 29, 2005.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview with S. Salaya, Manikapanga, Tamil Nadu, January 29, 2005.

[109] Human Rights Watch interview with Narayanswami, village chief, Cuddalore, January 30, 2005. Local groups later helped the Irulars to claim compensation.

[110] Human Rights Watch interview with Narayanswami, Cuddalore, January 30, 2005.

[111] Subhash Ghatade, “Calamity and Prejudice,”, January 28, 2005 [online], (retrieved April 6, 2005); “Low-Caste Tsunami Victims Denied Aid,” Deutsche Press-Agentur, January 7, 2005 [online], (retrieved January 25, 2005); Jay Shankar, “Discrimination Survives Disaster,” Irish Examiner, January 8, 2005 [online], http://www/ (retrieved January 25, 2005); Justin Huggler, “Untouchable Caste Find Themselves Deprived of Tsunami Aid,” The Independent, January 22, 2005 [online], (retrieved February 15, 2005).

[112] Rajeev P. I, “Even Govt Divides Survivors on Caste, Says It’s Practical,” The Indian Express, January 8, 2005 [online], (retrieved January 25, 2005).

[113] Human Rights Watch interview with Raju Rajagopal, Bhoomika Trust, Chennai, January 27, 2005.

[114] Human Rights Watch interview with K. Chithravelu, Pondicherry, January 29, 2005.

[115] Human Rights Watch interview with Muralidharan, Nagapattinam, January 29, 2005.

[116] Human Rights Watch interview with Ravichandran, Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation, Tamil Nadu, January 30, 2005.

[117] UN Guiding Principles, principle 24(1).

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