ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Relief and Rehabilitation: Ensuring Inclusion

The relief and rehabilitation packages framed for the tsunami affected in Tamil Nadu have brought to light instances of discrimination that deny dalits and adivasis their rightful. The policy of rehabilitation needs to be formulated anew. Such a policy must seek not only to provide succour but base itself on constitutional injunctions that advocate equality and rights to the marginalised.

More than three months after the devastating tsunami struck the coastal districts of Andhra, Pondicherry, Kerala and particularly Tamil Nadu, there is an urgent need to evaluate the nature of relief and rehabilitation. Is relief and rehabilitation moving smoothly, ensuring succour and restoring some degree of normalcy to all those so tragically affected? Initial assessments particularly by the media seem to be gung-ho about how well the relief and rehabilitation process is going. Shashikumar (‘Damning the Way of Destruction’, Tehelka, January 22, 2005) in fact, argues that, “if Tamil Nadu sustains the momentum of its relief and rehabilitation programme”, the state can lay claim to the first success story in disaster management. There is evidence to support this upbeat assessment, as seen in the swift process instituted by the Tamil Nadu government to ensure interim compensation, distribution of relief, reopening of schools and other measures to reintroduce a measure of normalcy. Despite this, most agencies right from the central government to the state government, and various NGOs have neglected one fundamental reality of Indian society, that is, caste discrimination and how in the present circumstances, it has completely marginalised dalits and adivasis in the relief and rehabilitation processes.

The community most severely affected by the tsunami is the fishing community. The fishing community comprises three main caste categories – the meenavars (most backward caste), dalits and pazhankudi makkal (scheduled tribes). Though these communities might live in the same village, there is complete segregation between the communities. The meenavars take the boats out to sea, the remaining jobs are done by the dalits and pazhankudis. These include the work provided by manual labourers, who unload the catch and then sort it; truck drivers who transport the fish for export and sale, etc, people who sell fish, those who repair/ paint boats, etc, those who do the inland fishing, prawn farm labourers, labourers who are part of the fish packing activities, those involved in construction, basketmaking, etc. Equally important to the very subsistence of the fishing village are the agricultural operations which are carried out in the immediate hinterland of the fishing area. Apart from both these categories of people affected are also those who provide the commercial backbone to the village economy including small shopkeeper owners and other service providers like barbers, tailors, cobblers, etc. There are also the labourers who work in the salt pans in Vedaranyam. The tsunami has wreaked havoc on this diverse range of people. In terms of loss of life, houses and livelihood it is the fishing community that has suffered the most, while the agricultural community has a loss of livelihood. The losses suffered by these communities have been addressed to some extent by various state government orders extending compensation. However, the crucial issue of rehabilitation of livelihoods of those who own nothing but their labour power has been completely ignored. Is Relief Caste Blind? The immediate aftermath of the tsunami saw a pouring-in of relief on a massive scale. However side by side, with such gestures of humanity continued the ritualistic practice of caste discrimination that excluded dalits from relief. In a report of January 1, 2005, Annie Namala on behalf of the Fact Finding team, noted: “As we watched, trucks of food and clothing came to the village and were getting distributed among the fisher community. The dalits who ran after the lorries came back empty-handed. They further complained that since morning three-four trucks had come to the village and the fisher community did not allow any of them to give any relief to the dalits. The standard question was – how many deaths are there among you?

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