01/10/2005, 00.00
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Tsunami dalits discriminated by government and NGO

by Danielle Vella

Government and Ngo provide help only to fisherman but they stay afar from dalits, priest says. Catholic church efforts to overcome survivors "agony".

Nagapattinam (AsiaNews) – Relief operations for Tsunami quake survivors in southern India are ignoring dalits. This is what the head of the Jesuit Social Apostolate for Southeast Asia discovered on a visit to Tamil Nadu's devastated coastal region of Nagapattinam.

Mumbai-based Fr Joe Xavier told Asianews that although communities of both fishermen and dalits in Nagapattinam were struck by monster tidal waves on 26 December, only fisherman have received help from government and non-governmental organizations.

"I have just visited Tamil Nadu. Dalits are being discriminated against in relief operations. All along the coastal line, NGOs are working with fishermen, but I did not see any NGOs working with dalits", said Fr Xavier.

"The government too is ignoring dalits. It is addressing the concerns of fishermen reasonably well, giving compensation, food, clothing, and other necessities. But dalits have nowhere to go".

Fr Xavier said that in Nagapattinam, fishermen are considered economically and socially superior to dalits, and this deep-rooted inequality is making itself felt in the aftermath of the massive sea quake.

A team of Jesuits has set up in the area to work alongside other NGOs.  Continues Fr Xavier: "We will address education and counselling needs of fishermen, but we will focus especially on dalits, so they will be given the dignity they deserve. We must demand the government gives dalits their rights".

Thousands of people were killed in Nagapattinam when the tsunami waves struck, including an estimated 900 children as they played on the beach. Victims also included tourists visiting the famous Vailankanni shrine to Our Lady, situated in the region.

Of the two communities, fishermen suffered the highest death toll in the sea quake, as they live along the coast, while dalits tend to live further inland.

"However dalits have lost their homes, their fields were inundated with water, their livestock is all gone. They have no drinking water as their wells were contaminated", said Fr Xavier. "Besides, dalits depended on fishermen for their livelihood: they bought fish from them and sold it in nearby villages".

Sadly, the discrimination suffered by dalit survivors is nothing new. Dalits, once known as "untouchables", fall below the lowest caste in the rigid social hierarchy which governs Indian society. In many areas, they remain a disenfranchised and oppressed social group.

In reaching out to quake survivors, the Jesuits will seek to improve relations between the two communities. Says Fr Xavier: "This is no small task. We are drawing up strategies to be implemented in the coming months, to empower dalits and to foster mutual respect and appreciation among fishermen and dalits".

As for the fishermen, Fr Xavier said expertise in trauma counseling is needed to help them back to work: "We need to address long-term needs. The fishermen spent their lives at sea, now they feel: 'Can we ever go back, how can we survive without working?'

"Their mental agony is huge and it must be addressed. We are looking for counseling experts to help these people get back to normal as soon as possible".

All this will come about in the days ahead. But for the moment, Fr Xavier feels that "just surviving" is a big enough task as people seek to come to grips with their lives once again.

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