Our dirty secret: Dalits suffer more, then clean our filth

Published on: December 15, 2015

Flood ravaged Chennai 2015

Image Courtesy: PTI

Moments of crisis, it is said, bring out the best and worst in us. Six days of unrelenting rainfall in Chennai reduced this beautiful urban centre in south India to a cess pool. As reports of relief, and rehabilitation kept pouring in, the ugly schisms present in Indian society, that a modern, upwardly mobile elite sits comfortably with, raised their ugly head.
On December 7, 2015, the Hindustan Times  reported that Dalit households had been hit hardest by the torrential rainfall over the past month due to poverty and discrimination by upper caste villagers. The newspaper was quoting from a study that had surveyed 8,400 Dalit and non-Dalit families in 20 villages in the Cuddalore region - more than half of these belonged to dominant caste villagers-- to find that around 90% of the houses, livestock and crops destroyed by the deluge belonged to Dalit families. The report also alleged dominant caste people blocked access to clean water and official relief measures remained concentrated in upper caste neighbourhoods that were more accessible by transport. This survey conducted by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and the Social Awareness Society for Youths (SASY), the survey said that Dalits made up the lion's share of those displaced by the floods as they lived in poorly-constructed mud houses. Of the 1,026 mud houses that collapsed, 971 belonged to Dalits and of the 311 concrete houses that were damaged, 305 belonged to Dalits, the report said. The report also found a majority of Dalit settlements were located on the fringes of the villages and much closer to dangerously-bloated water bodies.

The average distance of Dalit houses from these rivers, canals and the sea was 1.5 km. As a result of this proximity, 128 of the 146 goats killed in the survey area belonged to Dalits. All 20 cows that died belonged to Dalits and 274 of the 292 heads of poultry that drowned belonged to Dalits. In Vadakkuthurai village, dominant caste people stopped Dalits from entering their neighbourhoods to access clean water. In Alamelumangalapuram, Dalits who have never been allowed to enter upper caste areas were too scared to attend the government medical camp set up for flood victims.  The report said that most primary health centres were located in dominant caste neighbourhoods and were, on an average, three km from Dalit settlements. As a result, reaching these PHCs involved wading through flooded areas -- a major risk.

The neglect was institutional, the report alleged, pointing out that visits by senior government officials were mostly to dominant caste areas and Dalits who lived in the most-inaccessible parts of villages weren't visited by any inspection team. The report also said private and government aid teams were distributing relief materials such as food and tarpaulins only to dominant caste areas that were easily accessible and located on main roads and highways.[1]

Government officials in Cuddalore district denied the facts and findings of the report stating that helping marginalised Dalit communities was considered a priority after a disaster."In times of inundation, Dalit colonies are usually more affected since they are in low-lying areas," Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Cuddalore's Monitoring Officer for Disaster Relief, said."The state government is very sensitive to the needs of Dalits. For them, we have built a temporary shelter in record time."

On the next day, December 8, 2015, the website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation quoted extensively from the same report of the NCDHR and SASY.  Hundreds of poor lower-caste families who lost their homes and jobs after devastating floods swept southern India have been neglected by government relief efforts, a survey conducted by two charities has found.[2] This report had some more details. It stated that the survey polled 1,500 families in Cuddalore district, more than 40 percent of them Dalits, from Nov. 19 to 21, 2015. It found that 95 percent of damaged houses, 92 percent of livestock lost and 86 percent of crops lost belonged to Dalits. Caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist in many parts of the country and low-caste Indians still face prejudice in every sector. Aid workers say that in times of flood or drought, many Dalits do not get the same access as higher-caste Indians to emergency aid such as clean water,