Natural disasters affect Dalits most, says expert

March 13th, 2008 - 10:16 am ICT by admin  

By P.K. Balachandran
Colombo, March 13 (IANS) Natural disasters affect all communities but their impact on the Dalits and other marginalised social groups in India is the greatest, says an Indian social activist and researcher. “Disasters affect the Dalits the most because of the nature of their habitations, their isolation from the surrounding communities of upper castes and restrictions on access to relief and rehabilitation,” Prasad Sirivili said in an interview.

A contributor to the latest report on the world’s minorities by the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG), Sirivili said that almost everywhere in India, the Dalits lived in the low lying areas, which were prone to flooding.

The better lands in the villages, on higher ground, were always arrogated by the richer upper castes, Sirivili told IANS over telephone from New Delhi.

A study of the monsoon floods of 2007 in various parts of India showed that 60 percent of the dead were Dalits.

“At the flood or cyclone relief shelters, Dalits often do not get a place. And when relief comes, the upper castes arrogate most of it. When the time comes for rehabilitation and compensation, again there is gross discrimination,” he said.

“One of the reasons for this is that the Dalits are generally not property owners to get any compensation, but the other equally important reason is that government agencies go by property lost and not livelihood lost.

“While property loss is compensated, livelihood loss is not. The Dalits may not have lost property, but they have lost their livelihood,” Sirivili pointed out.

At present secretary of the New Delhi-based National Campaign on Dalits Human Rights (NCDHR), Sirivili said that if the Dalits sought better relief, rehabilitation and compensation, they get assaulted.

“False police cases are foisted on them and sometimes they are even murdered by members of the local dominant castes.”

A Dalit himself, Sirivili has a doctorate in economics from the University of Hyderabad. Before taking charge of NCDHR in New Delhi, he headed the Sakshi Human Rights Watch in Hyderabad.

One of the interesting findings of his studies in various parts of India is that government-sponsored economic and social development schemes and market forces have actually created new opportunities for discrimination against the Dalits.

“Take irrigation for example. When irrigation is introduced, it is meant to benefit the entire village, but actually it benefits only the upper castes. Water is denied to the Dalits, and if they demand they are put down ruthlessly.

“Women’s self-help societies are meant to promote women’s development, but this has created a new area for discrimination. The Dalits are discriminated against or marginalized in the womens’ self-help societies. In the panchayats also, they are not listened to. In some places the Dalits have to sit separately.”

Asked if there were regional variations in India or whether the plight of the Dalits was the same all over, Sirivili said: “Conditions are a little better in south India because of certain movements of social equality in the 20th century. But discrimination and untouchability are still facts of life in rural India.

“That such things get reinforced with economic and political development is particularly disturbing,” he added. Clearly, development is not a panacea for social ills, as is generally believed.”

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