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How India’s caste system keeps Dalits from accessing disaster relief

Historically disenfranchised, they are denied aid and equal protection.

A Dalit woman standing outside her house, which has a blue tarpaulin roof, typical of Dalit houses in Narasinghpatana, in the eastern state of Odisha, where many are still awaiting government compensation three years after disaster struck. Jit Chattopadhyay/TNH
A Dalit woman standing outside her house, which has a blue tarpaulin roof, typical of Dalit houses in Narasinghpatana, in the eastern state of Odisha, where many are still awaiting government compensation three years after disaster struck.

When devastating floods hit India’s western state of Kerala in 2018, Seena’s family had nowhere to go. After water submerged their home, Seena, her parents, and her brother walked three kilometres to the nearest relief centre at a temple, only to be told they weren’t allowed to enter. In 2019, when Cyclone Fani ravaged Bijoy’s house in the eastern state of Odisha, the wage labourer walked to a relief shelter with his family and was also turned away. 

Though these incidents took place on opposite coasts a year apart, they have a common denominator: caste. Both families come from the Dalit community, which – along with Adivasis, or Indigenous peoples – is the lowest rung in the world's oldest social hierarchal system, which vertically stratifies Indian society. Fearing violence against them for speaking out, both Seena and Bijoy asked to be referred to by pseudonyms. 

“Your caste determines what kind of treatment you will get during a disaster,” Sangram Mallick, an activist and co-founder of Ambedkar Lohia Vichar Manch, an NGO working on caste-based issues, told The New Humanitarian.

Historically marginalised, many of the 280 million Dalits that form 20% of India’s population today still live on the fringes of society. About a third of the population remains impoverished, according to the UN, and they often continue to be shunned by so-called oppressor castes who hold power at both the village and federal levels.

Viewed by members of the other castes as “untouchables”, Dalits particularly struggle during disasters, when community members bar them from accessing shared water and sanitation facilities: Since the Hindu religious belief operates on strict lines of purity, there is a belief that a Dalit touching a common water source will “pollute it”.

A Dalit woman sitting next to a hand pump in Narasinghpatna that was washed by members of other castes every time a Dalit used it after the cyclone.
Jit Chattopadhyay
A Dalit woman sitting next to a hand pump in Narasinghpatna that was washed by members of other castes every time a Dalit used it after the cyclone.

As climate change continues to bring worsening floods, droughts, cyclones and more to India, the government is being called upon to do more to protect against caste-based discrimination. A sweeping study released in September by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights warned that “climate apartheid” was likely to hit Dalits and Adivasis the hardest, and outlined “systemic inadequacies and disregard in involving their participation in disaster/drought risk management.” 

“[Indian] society has its dysfunctionalities, and disaster or any kind of crisis just accelerates these dysfunctionalities,” Sarbjit Sarota, a disaster risk reduction specialist at UNICEF India, told The New Humanitarian.

Discrimination and separation

When the floodwaters started rising in 2018, it didn’t take long for them to find Seena’s home. 

Watch more: Meet India’s frontline local responders: The fishermen of Kerala

“Our houses were submerged in water during the 2018 floods, as high as nine to 10 feet,” Seena told The New Humanitarian, showing the watermarks on her house, still visible four years after the disaster struck. 

That her home was so badly hit was hardly a surprise. Dalits such as Seena and Bijoy are forced to live in segregated colonies that sit apart from the dominant caste settlements in their village. Such neighbourhoods are invariably situated in areas more vulnerable to natural disasters. Seena’s Dalit-majority colony in Thiruvalla, Kerala, for instance, sits at a lower elevation and is more than three kilometres away from the main paved road. 

Within rural villages, meanwhile, temples are typically built at high elevations and on strong foundations – making them ideal spaces for disaster relief. But because they are religious spaces, community members can wield a great deal of control over who enters. During the 2018 floods, Seena and her family were told that only members of the Nair community – a dominant caste – could seek shelter in the temple. 

“We are not from the Nair community, so it is impossible for us to get a membership with the temple,” said Seena. 

But even when disaster shelters sit in public spaces, Dalits are often barred by their neighbours. During Cyclone Fani in 2019, 36% were turned away from relief shelters in the Puri district of Odisha, according to a study jointly undertaken by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and Ambedkar Lohia Vichar Manch.

“Indian society has its dysfunctionalities, and disaster or any kind of crisis just accelerates these dysfunctionalities.”

After being blocked from entering the Nair temple, Seena had to walk another two kilometres to reach a school that was designated as a flood relief shelter by the Kerala government. They then had to move to another school two days later after the shelter began to flood. 

In both Seena and Bijoy’s villages, only the dominant caste houses are connected to a paved road. “In my experience of more than 20 years, I have observed that where the road ends, Dalit settlements start,” said Ajay Kumar, executive director at RIGHTS, an organisation that serves marginalised communities, particularly Dalits and Adivasis.

In another study, conducted by NCDHR and Kerala-based RIGHTS, 63% of Dalits said that quick and adequate rescue was mainly provided to areas that were more easily accessible. Policy lapses like these count as cases of discrimination by default since the areas that are most accessible are almost always occupied by dominant caste families. 

In Narsinghpatana, a village in the Puri district of Odisha, Bijoy and fellow Dalit families managed to enter the cyclone relief shelter after they were stopped by neighbours from the dominant caste. 

They “allowed us to enter the shelter on the condition that we would stay in a specific part of the shelter and would not come close to them”, said Bijoy.

Once there, they faced friction over their use of the single water pump. According to a study from Wayanad, Kerala, 50% of Dalit Christians reported that water sources and vessels for Dalits and dominant castes in relief centres were separate. This hinders water access, a particular obstacle amid humanitarian crises such as natural disasters. 

“When we used the hand pump, [members of different castes] used to wash the hand pump with water and clean their hands before they used it,” Bijoy said, laughing.

In Kerala, Seena faced a similar experience when she and her family were crammed into a room with seven other Dalit families – separate from where the other castes were staying.

Poor planning, unfair compensation 

Binni Kandi, 55, lives in Olarpur village in Odisha’s Puri district. Most of her neighbours are members of a dominant caste and live in well-built homes, whereas Kandi, who did allow us to use her real name, lives in a temporary hut made of mud and dry leaves.

When Cyclone Fani hit, Kandi and 13 other Dalit families had to seek shelter in a nearby government school. “Our whole roof flew away,” she told The New Humanitarian. “Brahmins (a dominant caste) watched from their windows as we struggled to pack our documents.”

Because it’s a Brahmin-dominated area, and they typically have well-built houses, there’s no multi-purpose cyclone relief shelter, while government planners ignore the needs of the marginalised.

“Since Dalits do not have representation that can influence hyperlocal policies, they usually get ignored in matters of relief or compensation,” explained Kumar, of RIGHTS.

Binni Kandi's mud hut home in Odisha was blown away by Cyclone Fani in 2019. She was refused compensation because it didn't exist anymore and she didn't have any documents to prove ownership.
Jit Chattopadhyay
Binni Kandi's mud hut home in Odisha was blown away by Cyclone Fani in 2019. She was refused compensation because it didn't exist anymore and she didn't have any documents to prove ownership.

In Narasinghpatana, a few miles south along the coast from Kandi’s home, one can easily tell who was impacted most by Cyclone Fani – even three years later. A group of houses with blue roofs made of tarpaulin sits at one end of the village. At the other end, the homes are all well-built structures. Every person living under a tarpaulin roof is Dalit. 

The tarpaulin was meant as temporary relief, providing villagers with shelter while they waited for damage compensation from the state. But three years on, having yet to receive compensation, those have become permanent roofs. “We are the ones who have lost everything,” Bijoy said. “[The other castes] have rebuilt their homes, [they’re] back to their jobs, and here we are, living under the blue plastic.”

Others struggle to receive any support. Many Dalits are largely landless due to their historic inability to access land titles and documentation. According to the census, 71% of Dalits are labourers who work on land they do not own. 

Kandi’s house was completely blown away by the cyclone, as she lived in what is called a kutcha house with mud walls and a thatched roof. She and her family stayed in the relief camp for over three months waiting for compensation or state support. When government officials finally arrived to assess the damage, she was refused compensation because her house didn’t exist anymore and she didn’t have land records. 

It’s impossible to know how many like Kandi continue to live without relief or compensation because no government has ever released caste-segregated data on how natural disasters have affected Dalits. The NCDHR and RIGHTS have been advocating for the government to release such data for years.

“The other castes have rebuilt their homes, they’re back to their jobs, and here we are, living under the blue plastic.”

For Mallick of Ambedkar Lohia Vichar Manch, Dalit communities have been robbed of the right to a fair assessment. “Successive governments have failed to address landlessness, which is their responsibility,” he said.

Compounding the issue is the fact that compensation is structured in a way that tends to negatively impact Dalits. The compensation for loss of livestock stands at 30,000 Indian rupees (about $365) for the loss of a cow, 5,000 ($60) for poultry, and only 3,000 ($36) for a goat. While the cost of purchasing a cow is correctly estimated in these policies, the cost of a goat is at least six times that of the compensation issued by the state. Because cattle is an expensive animal to maintain, Dalits are far more likely to own small livestock.

“All of the people who are on the policymaking level consider themselves as ‘casteless’ even though most of them come from dominant caste communities,” noted Kumar.

Seena, Bijoy, and Kandi are still struggling to recover from the disaster. While they should have received up to $3,700 each, three or four years on, their evaluations have yet to be completed. The cyclone or flood may have passed, but for them, and countless more like them, the disaster hasn’t ended.

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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