By Nita Bhalla & Sandhya Ravishankar
CHENNAI/NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of poor lower-caste families who lost their homes & jobs after devastating floods swept southern India have been neglected by government relief efforts, a survey conducted by two charities has found.
About 280 people have died & more than 400,000 have been displaced across Tamil Nadu state since torrential rains began in early November, swelling rivers & reservoirs & inundating the state capital Chennai & neighbouring coastal districts.
A study of the first days of the floods found that although low-caste or "Dalit" families were the group worst hit by the floods, few had received any help, said National Dalit Watch & Social Awareness Society for Youth â€“ Tamil Nadu.
"No relief has reached the community properly till now. During the distribution of food relief there has been priority to the families having concrete houses, people having connections with leaders of villages," the report said.
"Relief camps & medical facilities have been organised far away from the villages, or are in dominant caste areas which Dalit people cannot access due to the lack of transport & fear of discrimination & violence," it added.
Government officials in Cuddalore district said the report was incorrect & helping marginalised Dalit communities was considered a priority after a disaster.
"In times of inundation, Dalit colonies are usually more affected since they are in low-lying areas," Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Cuddalore's Monitoring Officer for Disaster Relief, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The state government is very sensitive to the needs of Dalits. For them, we have built a temporary shelter in record time."
The rains, the heaviest in a century, hit Chennai last week, putting some areas under eight feet (2.5 metres) of water, trapping people on rooftops with no power or communications.
The rains have now stopped, water levels are dropping, & the government has set up relief camps across Tamil Nadu. Dry food & tarpaulins are being distributed, yet some interior areas have been difficult to reach due to damaged roads.
The survey polled 1,500 families in Cuddalore district, more than 40 percent of them Dalits, from Nov. 19 to 21. It found that 95 percent of damaged houses, 92 percent of livestock lost & 86 percent of crops lost belonged to Dalits.
Caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, yet centuries-old attitudes persist in many parts of the country & low-caste Indians still face prejudice in every sector.
Aid workers say that in times of flood or drought, many Dalits do not obtain the same access as higher-caste Indians to emergency aid such as clean water, dry food rations or shelter.
In most Dalit villages surveyed in Cuddalore's Parangipettai & Bhuvanagiri blocks there was no clean drinking water, & in some areas dominant castes had refused to share their water sources with Dalits, the survey showed. Most Dalit villages moreover lack medical services, it added.
But government officials said the bulk of the relief budget had been spent on helping rebuild & repair over 70,000 damaged homes of Dalits.
"District & state government are aware & make conscious efforts to ensure that the poor & Dalits are given the greatest care," said Bedi.Â
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla in New Delhi & Sandhya Ravishankar in Chennai, writing by Nita Bhalla, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption & climate change. Visit www.trust.org)