Relief and bias

Print edition : February 13, 2009

In Kannagi Nagar, Chennai, where tsunami victims have been rehabilitated. The living conditions are generally poor in the resettlement centres.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

WHEN the tsunami took its toll four years ago, it did not discriminate against any particular section. But the State discriminates against certain sections of survivors on flimsy grounds when it takes up relief and rehabilitation work. We dont understand why it is so.

This is what J. Swapna Sundari, a Dalit woman activist in Tamil Nadu, had to say to the Peoples Tribunal about the states discrimination against Dalits, the Scheduled Tribes, minority communities and sections of women in the rehabilitation of the tsunami-affected. Swapna Sundari, who is also the president of the Chennai Coastal Dalit Womens Federation, told the tribunal that Dalits and people belonging to minority communities had been living with fish workers for generations in nine settlements on the Marina in Chennai, from Nochikuppam to Srinivasapuram.

Their predominant livelihood activities, she said, related to fishing. They sell fish, repair fishing boats, mend fishing nets or serve as domestic helps. Some Dalits even accompany fish workers in their fishing operations. In short, these non-fishing people have been dependent on fish workers for their livelihood, she said. According to her, they had to stay close to the fishing community because of the very nature of their occupations.

Discrimination against Dalit victims was evident even during the initial stage of the rescue and relief operations. Dalits and people belonging to minority communities complained that relief articles, financial assistance and medicare facilities did not reach them. This kind of discrimination continued all along, Swapna Sundari said. We still face discrimination in the States housing package. The officials took our applications too for new houses, but later told us that only fishermen were eligible for in situ houses, said Swapna Sundari. They were told that non-fishermen families would be accommodated in tenements constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) in the suburbs of Chennai. So three months after the tsunami, the first batch of non-fishermen families, numbering about 3,000, reluctantly occupied newly constructed houses at Semmanancheri and Kannagi Nagar, both 20 to 25 km away from their old habitats.

Three years later, 322 more Dalit families in Chennai were uprooted from their old homes, located near the sea, and asked to move to Kannagi Nagar. Their resistance was of no avail. Sadly, this happened on a rainy day in January 2008. The dislocation disrupted the studies of many school-going children in these families and forced them to drop out.

Now thousands of non-fishermen families are resisting the move to relocate them in distant places. Seeing the difficulties faced by Kannagi Nagar and Semmanancheri residents in commuting to their workspots, they are worried about the serious threat to their livelihood. We, Dalits and fish workers families, have been living in harmony for generations. Why should the government separate us now? wondered Swapna Sundari.

Women are also among those neglected and discriminated against. The design of the houses for tsunami victims has not considered their need for privacy. Single women (both spinsters and widows) and households headed by women have reportedly been denied their right to a new house. Many Dalit families have been left out of the enumeration and were consequently denied relief and rehabilitation benefits.

K. Stephen Raj, a tailor, gave a detailed account of this inhuman treatment in his affidavit and deposition before the tribunal. He said that the government had attempted to evict them from their original habitats even before the tsunami struck; it did not succeed thanks to the peoples resistance. Taking advantage of the fear created in the minds of the people in the wake of the tsunami, the government, he said, had succeeded in making them move to houses, constructed long before the tsunami for resettling slum-dwellers in Chennai.

A casual visit to the housing complex at Kannagi Nagar, where the families of Stephen Raj and others evicted from Thideer Nagar on the Marina now reside, will convince one about the horrible and unhygienic living conditions detailed in the affidavit. The small twin-houses with a common toilet, together measuring less than 200 sq feet (far below the international standards in respect of rehabilitation), cannot accommodate more than two adults and one child in a house. These houses have been constructed in the backyard of a row of slightly bigger houses, each with a separate toilet; the row of houses are divided by a one-metre-wide dirty lane.

Stephen Raj told Frontline that when they were forced to leave their original homes, the officials had given them the impression that their new houses would be given to them free of cost. But on arrival at Kannagi Nagar, they were asked to make an initial payment of Rs.1,200 per family and pay a rent of Rs.250 a month. Until the payment was made, they were forced to live in the open. And, only about 200 of the 3,000 allotted houses had power connections. Each family was asked to pay about Rs.5,000 as deposit to get power supply.

Stephen Raj showed cracks on the walls and leaks in the ceiling of many houses, which made life miserable during the monsoon. Water supply is also inadequate, he said. The nearest hospital is 2 km away. The dislocation also forced many children to drop out of school. A major problem these people face is the time and money spent to reach their workplaces.

There is no way of finding a job in our neighbourhoods, because prospective employers there want us to produce a no-objection certificate from the local police station. More than anything else, this stigma is humiliating, he said.

Complaints of discrimination in respect of relief and rehabilitation have been brought to the notice of the Peoples Tribunal by representatives of Irulars (a Scheduled Tribe) and Dalits from other tsunami-affected areas such as Nagappattinam and Pudukkottai districts, and from Puducherry.

S. Viswanathan

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