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Tsunami Opens Fault Lines in Old Caste System

India's Untouchables Allege Discrimination In Allocation of Aid

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page A13

KEEZHAIVANAGIRI, India -- Muthu Vellaithevan, a farm laborer who is part of India's untouchable caste, lost seven goats and a cow when massive waves lashed at his coastal village on Dec. 26. The water also swept away his thatch-roofed mud hut.

But he said his real problems began after the water receded, when he and his people found themselves the targets of aid discrimination by the fishermen of his village.


Members of the untouchable caste, which is at the bottom of the rural social order in India, say they were made to live and cook separately from the fishing families of Thirumullaivasal village in Tamil Nadu after the Dec. 26 tsunami washed away their homes. (Rama Lakshmi For The Washington Post)

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"Forty families from my community took shelter in a school building outside the village," recalled Vellaithevan, 35, a father of three. "But in two days, the fishermen's families at the shelter began troubling us. They did not allow us to sleep and eat with them. They did not want to be under the same roof with us. We were forced to leave. Our homes were destroyed and our children were hungry. Where could we go?"

The South Asian tragedy has ripped open centuries-old fault lines of caste in rural India's rigid social hierarchy. In the district of Nagapattinam, where more than 6,000 people died, untouchables from about 10 villages have openly protested what they call discrimination against them in the provision of relief supplies and access to shelters.

The Indian constitution outlaws the country's 3,000-year-old caste system, in which society is organized into groups ranked in a strict hierarchy. But many Indians retain the system mentally. Untouchables are at the bottom of the rural social order; people of other castes often consider them to be unclean and refuse any contact with them.

The chief of Thirumullaivasal village, Shankuntala Natesan, a woman from the fishing community, denied the charges of aid discrimination.

She said the losses suffered by the untouchables were small because they did not have much to begin with. She said 90 fishing people and three untouchables died in the village.

"We have lost everything. Our homes, boats and lives," Natesan said, as she showed a television and refrigerator that lay broken in her home. "They lost their thatch roofs, a few goats and maybe a sickle and a spade."

The fishing families lived closest to the sea in this coastal community and appeared to have suffered the most damage from the tsunami in this area, in loss of both lives and livelihood. The bulk of relief supplies, from the government and private organizations, has gone to them.

"The fishermen have cornered all the relief supplies that come into the village. The whole world thought that only the fishermen are the victims," said Selvi Thangavelu, 40, whose husband washed fish that were brought from the sea and loaded them into trucks. "When we queued up for food or clothes, they said, 'Go away, we have suffered the most because we have lost lives and boats. What have you lost?' Our lives and our work are closely tied to theirs. But nobody paid any attention to us."

When they were thrown out of the school building, Vellaithevan and others went to a marriage hall and lived separately there for 10 days.

He said the government built plastic-roofed tents for 10 untouchable families in the village, while all the fishing families received shelters. Vellaithevan's family now lives by the road in a small tent that he made by tying old borrowed saris to three bamboo poles. He said the seawater flooded several acres of farmland, leaving him jobless.

When the government gave the family the equivalent of $90 and two sacks of rice as immediate relief a week ago, they returned to their village. "Now we cook our own food with the help of the money," he said, pointing to a wood fire outside his tent.

In Thirumullaivasal, 55 untouchable families have been living in a school building away from the tents of the fishermen. A private charity group cooks community meals in the village, but the untouchables allege that they mostly have served the fishing families.

"The fishermen say we will be fed only if there is extra food," said Neesa Madiazhagan, 28, an untouchable mother of two small children, living in the school building. "Whenever a relief truck enters the village, they unload it for themselves first. Whatever is left over is sent our way."

A senior bureaucrat looking after relief operations in Nagapattinam district acknowledged that there were some problems with the supplies not reaching the untouchables.

"In such a big calamity, there is bound to be some complaints about distribution of relief supplies. We are trying to address these gaps," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Fishermen bore the brunt of the tragedy. The untouchables also faced the problems, but to a lesser extent. Naturally all the attention was on the fishing community. But there is no deliberate caste discrimination."


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