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Jan 7, 2005 6:43 pm


Born into the wrong cast...



South Asia - AFP
[AFP]
India's untouchables forced out of relief camps

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KESHVANPALAYAM, India (AFP) - India's untouchables, reeling from the tsunami disaster, are being forced out of relief camps by higher caste survivors and being denied aid supplies, activists charged.

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Kuppuswamy Ramachandran, 32, a Dalit or untouchable in India's rigid caste hierarchy, said he and his family were told to leave a relief camp in worst-hit Nagapattinam district where 50 more families were housed.

"The higher caste fishing community did not allow us to sleep in a marriage hall where they are put up because we belong to the lowest caste," Ramachandran said.

"After three days we were moved out to a school but now the school is going to reopen within three days and the teachers drove us out," he said.

"Where will I take my family and children? The school had no lights, toilets or drinking water," available for the displaced.

More than 6,000 people died when tsunamis struck this southern Indian coastal district on December 26 and activists said that included 81 Dalits, who were daily wage earners working in agricultural lands.

The ferocious wall of sea water destroyed swathes of farm land and the Dalits no longer have any employment.

At Keshvanpalayam, the Dalits had only flattened homes to show while survivors elsewhere enjoyed relief supplies such as food, medicines, sleeping mats and kerosene.

No government official or aid has flowed into the village which houses 83 Dalit families more than 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Nagapattinam town.

Cranes and bulldozers cleared the debris of a neighbouring fishing community, but they are yet to reach the Dalit village.

Chandra Jayaram, 35, who lost her husband to the tsunamis, said her family has not received promised government compensation of 100,000 rupees (2,174 dollars).

"At the relief camps we are treated differently due to our social status. We are not given relief supplies. The fishing community told us not to stay with them. The government says we will not be given anything as we are not affected much," Jayaram said.

S. Karuppiah, field coordinator with the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation, said in some of the villages the dead bodies of untouchables were removed with reluctance.

"The Dalit villages are in most places proving to be the preferred choice of the fishing community to bury the dead. If the Dalits ask for relief materials the government says they can only give the leftovers," Karuppiah said.

"The government is turning a blind eye," he said. "When Dalits bury the dead they are not given gloves or medicines but only alcohol to forget the rotten stench."

Another activist, Mahakrishnan Marimuthu, who heads the non-governmental Education and Handicraft Training Trust, said tsunamis dealt a double blow to the caste.

"They lost their jobs, houses and relatives. On the other hand the social discrimination is proving to be worse," he said.



The government denied the allegations and said it was providing relief to every tsunami-affected family.

"There is no intention of closing down any camps and we are providing relief to each and every family. We will provide temporary shelters as these relief camps are getting overcrowded," said Veerashanmugha Moni, Nagapattinam's senior government administrator.

The United Nations (news - web sites) Children's Fund UNICEF (news - web sites) said government, relief agencies and aid workers did not discriminate against the Dalits but the caste issue always exists.

"All the aid going in is distributed the same way to all survivors. The social discrimination has been there during normal times," said Amudha, who heads a team of UNICEF volunteers in Nagapattinam.

"After the disaster happened it is still continuing. That is nothing new," she said.

Vijaya Lakshmi, spokeswoman for South India Federation of Fishermen Societies, agreed and said one could not wish away a centuries-old caste system when a disaster struck.

"If they (Dalits) are comfortable by staying separate they will," she said.



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