The natural disaster over, now lower-caste survivors of the floods in Barmer have to face up to the human tragedy of caste discrimination in the distribution of relief, sadly not an uncommon occurrence during disasters in India where help is meted out along caste lines.
While nature and the devastation it can wreak don’t play favourites, the help that comes after that is, unfortunately for the survivors, often more picky. In the recent unprecedented floods that hit the Thar desert in Rajasthan, relief efforts have been dogged by allegations of caste bias.
Although the floodwaters in Barmer, the worst hit district in the state, are slowly receding, for lower-caste villagers the relief efforts have brought on a new wave of misery and hopelessness. Low-caste survivors report that they are being turned away when supplies are handed out, and that trucks don’t stop in predominantly low-caste villages.
Jagmal Ram, a potter in flood-ravaged Kawas village, has been hungry for days, as are many others from his community of kumhars (potters) who are low down in the traditional Indian caste hierarchy.
After losing his home in the deluge, Jagmal is staying in a temporary tent shelter along with his family. His 11-month-old daughter Ganga has not eaten for the last two days. It’s not that relief has not come to his village. But, every time the children spot a truck, they end up disappointed because many trucks don’t stop. “We are lower-caste people. No one gives us foodgrain or food, but we too have children and they too get hungry. What do we do when our kids get hungry? If our kids go there, they say ‘go away, you are kumhars’,” says Ganga’s distraught mother.
Jagmal says he has lost all hope: “Who will help us? Malis help malis, jaats help jaats, darzis help darzis - everyone helps their own caste. Who’ll help us? We are poor, hungry and thirsty, and left alone,” he says.
In fact, the region is so sharply divided along caste lines that people actually make lists of villages populated with people belonging to their caste and then begin the relief work on the basis of these lists.