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

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Caste in the Midst of Cyclone Fani

Natural disasters have no control over social discrimination.

 

The recent incident of caste discrimination in the aftermath of Cyclone Fani in Odisha is different from the earlier cases of discrimination during disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. It is different, not in relation to destructive intensity, but more in terms of its ethical dimension that seeks to completely devastate human relationships. The complete absence of human concern on the part of the upper castes was intensified in their response to the Dalits’ fundamental need for safety in shelter. Such intensity reached its peak, particularly in an incident that took place when the cyclone lashed the coastal villages and districts of Odisha. As reported in the media, the cyclone-affected Dalits from a village in the Puri district were not only barred from entering the public shelters but also forced to vacate the shelters that they had managed to occupy. The media report added that the Dalit families were forced to take shelter under a banyan tree, which was also uprooted by the cyclone and shared the fate of the Dalit families. They thus found themselves literally thrown to the mercy of the winds blowing at the speed of 200 kilometres per hour and torrential rains.

In this sense, the caste-based discrimination that took place in the midst of a devastating cyclone is different from other forms of discrimination which occur in post-disaster scenarios, particularly in the process of distribution of aid. Caste discrimination was witnessed in the process of distribution of aid following the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, and the earthquakes in Kutch, Gujarat and Latur in Maharashtra. Similarly, in the case of Bihar floods, it was reported that the distribution of aid was done in a way that did not help the poor and the Dalits. Food and medicine packets were dropped on the terraces of the buildings owned by the rich. Obviously, the Dalits did not have access to such terraces. However, the military personnel must have thought it sensible to drop the food and medicine packets on the terraces of the houses rather than into the flood water. It is in this sense that disaster-bound discrimination is structural. It is structural because human bias is rationalised from the utility point of view. That is to say, in flood relief operations, for example, what is important to keep in mind is the concern that food and medicine packets are not being wasted. However, we need to ask an important question: Did the upper castes in Odisha have valid reason to turn Dalits away from the public shelter or ask them to vacate the shelter after it was occupied by them? One of the ground reports suggests that the upper castes who had occupied the shelter before the Dalits, turned the latter away on the ground that the shelter was already overcrowded and could not take in more people.

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Updated On : 22nd May, 2019

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