The suffering caused by the recent South Asian tsunami has been compounded not only by the material backwardness to which that region is condemned by imperialism, but also by the social backwardness that this scarcity reinforces--which in South Asia includes the institution of caste.
Since the disaster there has been systematic discrimination against untouchables seeking emergency relief. Untouchable families have been driven out of emergency shelters reserved for the dominant caste. They’ve been refused food and supplies, or given only leftovers. They’ve been forbidden to drink from tanks of clean water donated by international agencies because their touch would pollute it.
The local relief operations are run by members of the Meenavar fishing caste, who are the main inhabitants of the section of India’s coast that was hit and who suffered by far the heaviest losses. But thousands of untouchables who live among the Meenavars in segregated colonies as their laborers--making fish baskets, hauling fish, and working on boats and ports for them--have also lost family members, livelihoods, and what little property they had. While the Meenavars are themselves an extremely oppressed caste, they have a higher status than the outcaste and ritually unclean untouchables.
The solution of the government and relief agencies has been to set up separate camps for untouchables and other non-Meenavar survivors, including tribals and Muslims. Activists who have visited these camps report that, as always, separate is not equal. The situation is reminiscent of the aftermath of the catastrophic 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, when international relief workers had to label emergency blood supplies by caste because even the dying would not accept a transfusion of potentially lower-caste blood.
The government has made little pretense of ensuring equal treatment for its citizens. Shantasheela Nayar, the official in charge of relief for the most devastated district, told the press, “We certainly do not discriminate, but if the fishermen themselves are doing it because of their local status, what can the government do?"
But the government did discriminate. The Indian Express (“Even Govt divides survivors on caste, says it's practical,” January 7, 2005) reported that revenue officials in the same district helped to exclude untouchables and others from the main relief camps. District Sub Collector Dr. P. Umanath justified this policy by saying, “A crisis like this is no time to experiment with casteist and religious amity."
Untouchables employed as municipal sanitation workers were recruited from neighboring towns to dig up and cremate or bury the thousands of corpses left in the tsunami’s wake. It is no accident that all these workers were untouchable--removing refuse, human waste, and dead bodies are among the caste duties allotted to untouchable communities. They did this dangerous and necessary work, often without masks, gloves, or even shoes, for fifty cents and a meal a day.
There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the shocked reaction to the tsunami disaster in the imperialist press, as though the great mass of people in the region that was hit have ever enjoyed a humane standard of living.
Natural disasters make the news. The social disasters created and sustained by imperialism are chronic and ongoing. Which are more costly?