India: Dalits unable to access government disaster relief programs

Despite the fact that caste-based discrimination is illegal in India, prejudice against Dalits seeps into government-run programs, including disaster relief. Lee Macqueen Paul, documented the impact on Dalit communities during heavy flooding last year. The photo report can be downloaded below. The report was commissioned by National Dalit Watch, an initiative of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. In an interview below, Lee speaks about the project.

MRG: Can you explain why Dalits suffer more than other communities during natural disasters due to discrimination against them?

Lee: The colours of caste discrimination in disaster relief and rehabilitation were revealed even during the Tsunami in India in 2004. Dalits suffer the most on account of their geographical locations, poor infrastructure in the locality and inaccessibility to their habitation. The officials mostly rely on the village pradhans (elected heads) for information who are mostly from the dominant caste and misguide the whole process of identification of victims and their enumeration. The government is supposed to do vulnerability mapping before disasters occur and the block level authorities should ideally have all information with them so that immediate and equitable action is taken, and no one is excluded.

The vulnerability of Dalits is aggravated owing to their caste (almost central to the social life of rural India), which cuts the off from the mainsteam society. This vulnerability to hazards makes them susceptible to the lasting impacts of disasters. Moreover, they lack coping mechanisms to recover from damages and losses due to natural disasters.

MRG: Is this discrimination practiced by government authorities?

Discrimination is practiced in a hidden form by the government authorities, in the sense, that they fail to acknowledge, despite being fully aware of this menace, caste as deterrent factor in accessing relief and rehabilitation. They feel it’s the way of life and things cannot be changed overnight.

The very fact that we have the Schedule Castes/Schedule Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, yells out the reality that India is still living with this blight. But since the conviction rate is low under the Act (again due to caste politics and victimisation of Dalits), the government authorities suppress that reality. You can call it "discrimination by default", whereby, knowingly or unknowingly these authorities are leaving out Dalit populated areas from the purview of development. The disaster management policies and guidelines just have a passing reference to 'vulnerable groups' but the caste-related vulnerabilities don't find any place in legislation and policies around disaster management.

Vulnerability is often understood as women, children, old aged, disabled and HIV+ people, which is absolutely fine, but Dalits should fall within these social categories also.

MRG: Can you tell me what the government must do to ensure that Dalits are provided with the same services as other communities during disasters?

LEE: The Disaster Management policy guidelines and minimum standards for relief and rehabilitation should recognize the reality of exclusion of Dalits and other vulnerable groups. The guidelines should explicitly acknowledge and state the same.

Officers of state agencies should recognize the societal processes of caste-based exclusion at work in communities. Hence, they should directly reach out to the Dalits and vulnerable groups, avoiding any mediation of people from the powerful dominant communities. The reaching-out and assessment process would use participatory methods for better inclusion, so as to design programmes that are sensitive to the rights of Dalits and relevant to their economic and livelihood needs.

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Date: 20/06/2011




Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech
Religion/Religious minorities
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