Dalits living in regions of India recently ravaged by flooding are among the nation’s worst-hit victims. They are also often among the last to receive emergency assistance and face caste-based discrimination when it comes to aid and relief distribution.
Hundreds of Dalit villages were inundated in late August and early September by flooding rivers or water released from overflowing dams. International aid groups are now expressing their concern for these residents as well as tribal communities, who make up some of the most marginalized groups in the country.
“[They are] often the landless and voiceless in Indian society who live in the most rural areas with virtually no amenities, education or influence,” reported Caritas Internationalis.
“Their options are minimal; their safety nets nonexistent. They are communities who work as laborers on farms they do not own, often subject to exploitation on wages and living hand-to-mouth even during normal times.”
In the Barmer district of Rajasthan, which recently experienced two years’ worth of rainfall in just three days, residents—both high- and low-caste—were marooned on sand dunes while up to 16 feet (5 meters) of water covered what is normally a desert landscape. However, when camps were set up for the displaced, members of higher castes chased Dalit families away, denying them food and water and restricting them from the use of common kitchens, toilets and sleeping areas.
One Dalit rights leader noted that this action was a reflection of the upper caste community’s continuing prejudice that the proximity of Dalits is a polluting influence.
Local government officials had also planned to pump standing water away from Dalit villages in this region but have been unable to carry out their relief work so far due to strong opposition from the high-caste residents.
This response has also been repeated in recent history following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the 2004 Asian tsunami. Not only would local communities refuse to help Dalit groups, but many aid organizations—some influenced by the upper castes—overlooked these already marginalized people.
“It is tragic that even in natural calamities, caste discriminations dominate,” commented Father Raj of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “Caste destroys the lives of the people in India, even in such life and death situations. Dalits have been marginalized for centuries and even in this new tech age, their conditions are not too different.”
Because of most Indians’ deep-rooted belief in the “uncleanness” of Dalits, their communities are often located on the outskirts of towns and villages, away from the main roads, which makes them even more difficult to reach in times of disaster.
Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannan says that GFA missionaries have an advantage over many outside organizations in ministry among Dalits.
“Our Gospel workers have already committed themselves to taking the message of God’s love where it has not been known before,” he states, “and this includes many remote communities where Dalits live. We have an incredible opportunity to express in practical ways Christ’s compassion to the victims of this terrible flooding, regardless of caste.”
GFA Compassion Services recently completed its first phase of relief operations in four of the worst-hit states of India—Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.