In August 2018, Kerala reeled under the worst floods witnessed in the past century. Lakhs of people were displaced, over five hundred people lost their lives and the state suffered a loss of over Rs 25,050 crore. One would expect that in the face of such a huge disaster, people would come together across communities to fight the forces of nature. However, during the rescue operations itself, there were reported cases of caste discrimination. In Pallippad grama panchayat of Alleppey district, 28 Syrian Christian families were alleged to have refused to stay in a relief camp and share food with dalit families. Following this, a case was registered with the Alleppey district collector against them by the All Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha. While the state government praised the voluntary work done by fishermen in the rescue operations at the cost of their own lives and livelihood, there were reports of discrimination faced by them during the rescue operations. In Kollam district, seventeen members of a Namboodiri family who were trapped in the floods refused to get into the boat of Marion George (47) claiming that they would not enter the boat of a Christian. (Latin Catholic fisher communities are usually members of the Other Backward Classes in Kerala).
Vulnerable from the start
Although disasters of this magnitude affect everyone across caste and gender, the experiences of discrimination that dalit and adivasi communities faced during and after the Kerala floods shows that the most debilitating repercussions are faced by marginalised communities. According to a study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights on caste-based discrimination in humanitarian responses, “Dalits are more vulnerable to natural and human-made disasters because of their marginal social standing and discrimination as well as their habitation in marginal spaces segregated from mainstream settlements. This often results in Dalits living in highly vulnerable places prone to all kinds of disasters. Yet humanitarian minimum standards do not currently require, guide or even suggest that providers of humanitarian assistance in caste-affected countries understand and respond to caste discrimination.”
Santosh Kumar, an anti-caste activist from Wayanad confirms that there are 27,000 dalit colonies in Kerala and over 4,600 adivasi colonies. “Historically because dalit communities were agricultural slaves under the caste system, they lived near wetlands and marshy places that are conducive to agriculture. So the floods affected these communities most,” he says. Many of the rescue operators did not have any knowledge of the habitats of dalit and adivasi communities during the floods, resulting in state rescue teams reaching these places much later than others, if at all. In most places, local rescue teams from the communities themselves engaged in risky rescue and relief operations. Shivani, the Vice President of Thai Kula Sangam in Attapadi says, “We formed our own rescue teams because the state teams did not arrive and so, we placed huge logs across water bodies to reach adivasi hamlets that were completely cut off by the overflowing Bhavani river”.
The other structural reason for the dalit and adivasi communities facing the worst impact of the floods is the poor infrastructure and housing they have to deal with on a daily basis. In Kadapra Mannar for instance, dalit children living in an island cut off by a flooded marsh have to swim across and then wear their uniforms to go to school. There is no road available to reach the main road from their houses. For at least 6 months in a year the place is flooded.
With little help, a huge struggle to recover
While the public perception is that Kerala has recovered from the floods and gone back to its old self, the reality for dalit and adivasi areas is a stark contrast to this. When TNM visited one of the dalit colonies of Mulapurathu kadavu in Pathanamthitta district, some houses were found to be completely destroyed and households with children living in makeshift tents made from materials of their destroyed homes. One such house belonged to Jayasudha, who said, “In 2010/2011, under the Rehabilitation for Landless Scheme, we got Rs 75,000 for buying land and Rs 1 lakh for building a house. Our labour charge was a lot because we are in the interiors and the money sanctioned was insufficient. Our home was completely destroyed in the floods.”
“Even the loans offered for rehabilitation which was initially announced as interest free, comes with 9% interest now which is unaffordable to us,” says Siji, a resident of Kadapra Mannar in Pathanamthitta district. The issue with the Kudumbashree loans, a state sponsored program for poverty eradication, offered in adivasi areas is of a different kind. Kudumbashree does not exist in all adivasi areas and the government will have to open Kudumbashree in all areas for everyone to access these loans offered. Activist Santosh Kumar, who works in Wayanad among adivasi communities, says furthermore that when there is a default on loans, the government usually takes money from the SC/ST development schemes budget to pay back the banks. “If the same is done with these Kudumbashree loan defaulters, then it will take away a significant portion of the money meant for development schemes and adversely affect the adivasi communities who historically struggle for land, livelihood and resources,” he says. While dominant caste families have been able to make insurance claims for the losses incurred by their houses, household items and business establishments, this is obviously not available to lower caste families that have no access to insurance schemes.
Furthermore, in response to the Revenue Minister’s letter, the disaster management department brought out an order which says that those living in flood-prone or wetland areas will be rehabilitated elsewhere under the Housing Complex Project on 4 cents of land. This will create more dalit and adivasi colonies away from the habitations they depend on for their livelihood, potentially worsening their social and economic marginalisation. Activist Santosh Kumar says, “People who are living freely will be shifted into colonies. So as part of rehabilitation, they are making more colonies. We know that 80% dalits live in 26,000 colonies, majority of adivasis stay in over 4,600 colonies, 500 fisher colonies. The majority of the most oppressed live in colonies. In a situation where we know how living in these colonies result in the financial, social and political exclusion faced by them, in the name of rehabilitation 4 cents of land is being given and building houses, more colonies are being created by the government.” Activist Ajay Kumar, who led relief operations as part of his organisation named Rights, says that outsiders who came for relief operations were shocked to see the existence of so many dalit colonies in Kerala because they had bought into the myth that caste doesn’t exist in Kerala.
Exclusion and neglect in relief work
P.T Kochupalapallil, ex-vice president of Kerala Dalit Panthers and resident of Kadapra Mannar in Pathanamthitta, lost most of his house and household items but received only Rs 20,000 and some foodgrains from the Panchayat as relief. His house is one of four in the middle of a marshy land cut off from the main road. During rescue operations, it was the local boys who brought boats and saved the lives of his six family members. They had no access to clean drinking water even months after the floods and say they have to buy bottled drinking water. This is confirmed by other families living on the island. Mini, another resident says, “The relief teams gave materials only along the main roads and never came here. We didn’t even get bleaching powder to clean the wells.” While some of the exclusion in relief and rescue operations was due to the teams not knowing the local areas, especially the interior ones which are inhabited by dalit and adivasi communities, some of the neglect was deliberate. There were many complaints of relief materials being blockaded on the main roads and diverted to dominant caste areas in Alleppey and Pathanamthitta. Shobha, an adivasi rights activist also told TNM that in relief operations, they found that a lot of secondhand materials were sent to adivasi areas while the fresh stock was kept aside. There were also several allegations of CPIM party workers forcibly stopping relief materials and diverting them to their stronghold areas.
There are also allegations of discrimination in the infrastructure provided to those affected during the floods. Dinu Veyil, a student activist who was active in the relief work says, “In Mampad, 150 members of an adivasi community were housed in a building which was under construction and the space was insufficient for all the members to stay. There is a discrimination in the preference given in the relief camps provided itself.” Ajay Kumar , an anti-caste activist confirms this claim. He says, “ Most dominant caste people shifted to their own institutions soon after the relief operations as they have many such resources. Apart from this we also recorded cases of segregated camps where one floor was given to dalits exclusively. In most places, relief camps became caste camps. In one instance, sixteen dalit families were given one classroom to stay while each dominant caste family in the camp got a separate classroom”.
Rampant discrimination in disaster zones
In a state that takes pride in calling itself “God’s Own Country, the ongoing reality of caste discrimination is deplorable. This however is not unique to the Kerala floods and the aftermath of this particular disaster. A study by the Asian Human Rights Commission shows that after the Kosi river flooded in Nepal in August 2008, following which more than 35,000 villagers were displaced, there was no safe drinking water available for 80 dalit households in just one ward. The community languished for want of basic amenities until two years later, when the United Nation Development Programme provided pipes and hand pumps for the villagers. In 2005, at some tsunami relief camps along the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu, there were several complaints of caste discrimination, including those of Dalits not being allowed to drink water from tanks put up by UNICEF as other groups objected saying they would ‘pollute’ the water. In Kadapra Mannar, Pathanamthitta too, TNM reporters observed that the dalit households were using makeshift water filters consisting of plastic buckets filled with gravel at the bottom to purify water even two months after the floods.
The need for rehabilitation schemes for marginalised communities
The rehabilitation assessment work by the Kerala state government will take over a year and take place on the basis of legal papers proving ownership of land and houses. This will lead to several problems. Activist Ajay Kumar says, “Most of the dalit or adivasi families do not have their land pattas. So they are illegal settlements and all of them are excluded from the package. The other issue is that many households which have many families living under one roof will be counted as one family and will not be given enough relief or rehabilitation.” If the government undertakes rehabilitation under a general package that treats everyone equally, the specific issues faced by marginalised communities will not be addressed. For the same reason, activist Santosh Kumar urges the government to implement rehabilitation as a special package designed for specifically marginalised populations like dalits, adivasis, fisher people, plantation workers and farmers. “This will ensure that there is no time limit on the rehabilitation package and it will not lapse or be diverted into other schemes. If rehabilitation is done as a mission model, it will ensure that the schemes meant for development of adivasi and dalit areas will continue uninterrupted alongside with the special rehabilitation packages designed to take into account the specific historical locations and socioeconomic conditions of oppressed communities,” he noted.
Much still remains to be done by the government in terms of enabling vulnerable communities in Kerala recuperate from the floods and come back to their everyday lives. However, if the state government continues to deny the existence of casteism and turns a blind eye to the historical and ongoing marginalisation of dalits and adivasis in Kerala, the discrimination that these communities face every day will only be heightened during and after times of natural disasters. At this point, the Kerala model of development stands exposed as a myth while the pernicious impact of the caste system, a centuries-old system of segregation and slavery, still continues unabated in the state. Caste still remains the largest human disaster affecting the people of Kerala for which there is still no relief available.