Indian minorities await help that fishermen get
By YP Rajesh
Although discrimination on the basis of caste or religion is outlawed in India, centuries-old fault lines between groups remain, particularly in the countryside
M Ganesan, a labourer in south India, belongs to Hinduism’s so-called untouchable caste and literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks, while Sheikh Amin, a Muslim mason, lives 35 miles away along the coast.
The two have much in common - their houses were razed by the Indian Ocean tsunami, their property washed away, they are desperately poor and little government relief has reached them - nearly a month after the disaster. The reason they have yet to get much help? They are not fishermen, who account for 80 percent of those affected by the Dec 26 tsunami in India, and have been the focus of a relief juggernaut.
“The government gave us 4,000 rupees, 60 kg of rice and disappeared,” said M Murugan, a resident of Nagore’s colony of untouchables. “We disinfected this place ourselves, we are forced to buy water and a voluntary group is feeding us,” he said.
While thousands of fishermen have been moved to temporary shelters, about 165 untouchables of Nagore sleep in a cramped charity shelter and spend the day at a thatched community kitchen set up by an aid agency beside a railway track.
Voluntary groups said there were more than two dozen such pockets - of untouchables, Muslims, rickshaw pullers, labourers, construction workers - that have been passed by in Nagapattinam district, India’s worst-hit with more than 6,000 deaths.
Cranes, earth-movers, trucks with relief supplies, volunteers and government officials have converged on dozens of fishing villages in the region. Debris has been cleared away, temporary shelters built, taps and streetlights installed, and doctors and nurses stationed at medical centres.
Not by design: But in many pockets of non-fishing communities, it appears as if the tsunami hit only yesterday. No relief workers are in sight, debris lies untouched, and there is no power or water supply, and no word about shelters. And there could be worse to come.
“Railway authorities want us to leave because the kitchen is on railway land,” Ganesan said. “We’ve made four trips to the government office seeking help but it has been of no use.” It’s a similar story in Tirumullaivasal village where Muslims, untouchables and fishermen live in adjoining blocks. The destruction suffered by them is the same, although there were substantially more deaths among fishing families.
“Officials said they would come to us later since not many had been killed in our areas,” Amin said. “Does that mean some of us should have died so that others could get relief?”
Although discrimination on the basis of caste or religion is outlawed in India, centuries-old fault lines between groups remain, particularly in the countryside. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, fishermen, who are marginally higher than untouchables in the ancient Hindu caste hierarchy, were reported to have denied untouchables food, water and shelter at government facilities.
But aid workers say the discrimination is probably not deliberate. “I don’t think government relief has not touched these groups because they belong to a lower caste or a different religion,” said M Krishnakumar of Avvai Village Welfare Society, a voluntary group working in areas ignored by authorities.
“The fishing community is well-organised with cooperatives and unions and they have drawn government attention and cornered all the relief,” he said. A senior government official said there was no intention to ignore non-fishing communities. “We will get there, someone will reach that area soon,” the official told Reuters referring to Nagore’s untouchable colony. reuters