01/07/2005, 00.00
INDIA
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Religious and caste discrimination in government aid distribution in Tamil Nadu

Christian leaders say the government wants all the credit for aid and rescue. Police diverts aid lorries away from Vailankanni shrine. For two days local priests asked in vain for earth-moving equipment to save trapped survivors. In the first week, the Church was on its own. Dalits are turned away from refugee camps.

Chennai (AsiaNews) – India's government seems to want to take all the credit for aid and rescue operations in Tamil Nadu (southern India), this according to John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union, who recently toured the state hit by the December 26 seaquake.

In a press conference held in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) senior leaders from Christian lay and Church organisations appealed to the government and the international community to focus aid on local Dalits (untouchables) and poor fishermen.

In their statement Christian leaders also stressed the need to include the Christian shrine in Vailankanni and the churches in Tranquebar in any plan to protect the area from future tsunamis.

Mr Dayal told AsiaNews that there is something disturbing about the government' aid and rescue operations which are in danger of being used for political ends.

"In Vailankanni," he said, "the state government with the help of the police and the state administration is seizing all the aid destined for victims living around the shrine, saying it will distribute it itself." He noted that whilst the authorities want local NGO cooperation, they also seem to "want to take all the credit". Worse still, Mr Dayal said he saw "the police divert aid lorries designated for Vailankanni", a claim confirmed by local clergymen.

Local priests also said they pleaded in vain with the authorities to bring in earth moving equipment in the first two days when people still trapped in the rubble could be saved.

What's more, many people died because of the lack of the necessary medical equipment that could have helped those survivors with mud-caked and seawater-filled lungs, many of them children.

In the first week after the tsunami, the church had to act on its own, distributing everything from diesel for power generators and electric supply in the camps to medicines and food

Christian leaders stressed the need to help the Dalits who are facing obstacles when they seek shelter in refugee camps.

To make matters worse, Mr Dayal said that rich fishing boat owners, who also suffered losses, are intimidating the poor in order to monopolise relief assistance. He warned that the "government must take urgent steps to ensure that the Dalits get both relief and rehabilitation or there may be troubles."

Christian leaders insisted that the long-term rehabilitation of the fishing industry must not exclude anyone, especially fishermen who do not own their own boats but are employed by rich boat owners. In fact, this is an opportunity to ensure that fishermen have their own boats and are self-sufficient

Mgr Devadass Ambrose Mariadoss, Bishop of Thanjavur, suggested that a way to protect the fishing fleet would be to build a breakwater and a steel perimeter grid.

Detailed projects are expected to be prepared with the assistance of marine engineers, the government and international organisations as soon as the immediate relief requirements are over, Dr Dayal said. (MA)

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