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Even In Flood, India's `Untouchables' Last Rescued

By Gavin Rabinowitz

02 September, 2008
Associated Press

TRIVENIGANJ, India - In the two weeks since a monsoon-swollen river burst its banks, ancient prejudices have run just as deep as the floodwaters. India's "untouchables" are the last to be rescued — if at all — from a deluge that has killed dozens and made 1.2 million homeless.

Dalits, the social outcasts at the bottom of the Hindu caste ladder, have borne the brunt of the devastation as the rampaging Kosi River swamped hundreds of square miles in northern India after it overflowed and shifted its course dozens of miles to the east.

On Sunday, one Dalit, Mohan Parwan ran up and down a half destroyed bridge that has become the headquarters for rescue operations in this town near the border with Nepal, desperately scanning arriving boats for signs of his family.
Dozens came in but each time he was disappointed.

Parwan, 43, is from a Dalit village just 2 miles away but completely cut off by a deep lake created by the swirling waters. As the village headman, he was put on the first rescue boat that came and was promised his wife, four children and the rest of the community would follow.

"It's been six days and since then no boat has come from the village," he said, tears welling in is eyes.

Dalits have long been shunned, holding a status so low they are considered outside the complex caste system that is all pervasive in India, dividing people into hundreds of groups defined by livelihood, class and ethnicity.
Even India's emergence as a global force — fueled by it's economic growth and high-tech hubs — has failed to break down the barriers and stigmas that hold them down.

When it comes to rescue operations, it appears Dalits are at the bottom, too.

In Triveniganj, Dalits huddled together in a small group at the end of the bridge away from everyone else. They said rescuers were saving the upper castes and the rich first, leaving their people to suffer without food and clean water.

"We are 200 people on a roof for days. Two children fell in and drowned. No one is coming to help us," said Kishore Ram, 22, who got out on one of the few boats to visit his village.

"The officials don't listen to us little people. We can't offer bribes and influence, I'm just a poor student," Ram said.

Hearing about the flood, Prithvi Chand Baswan, a 38-year-old Dalit, rushed home from the neighboring state of Punjab where he works as a farm laborer, searching for his wife and six children, ages 3 to 12. Four miles from home, he was stopped by flooding.

"People from the village say they are sheltering in the temple, but I can't get to them and they won't send a boat for a Dalit village," he said, holding his head in despair.

Ravindra Prasad Singh, a state government official coordinating rescue work in Triveniganj, about 875 miles east of New Delhi, the capital, denied that Dalits were being ignored.

"It's ridiculous. They are lying," he said, but he could not explain why only a single boat of Dalits had come in during all of Sunday afternoon even though they make up more than half the region's people.

On Monday, other government officials acknowledged there was a serious problem with Dalits being ignored, but said they were working to fix it.

"We are aware of these complaints," said Prataya Amrit, a top disaster management official in Bihar state, the scene of the flooding.

Amrit said greater resources were being sent to Dalit majority areas like Triveniganj and army and navy officers were now handling rescues to ensure less abuses.

The military "presence will instill a lot of confidence," he said. "In an operation of this magnitude you can't distinguish between rich and poor."

Officials also commandeered private boats in an effort to prevent richer and higher castes from monopolizing the vessels.

India's treatment of Dalits is a long and bitter history of good intentions and little progress.

Caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than a half century, and a quota system was established with the aim of giving Dalits a fair share of government jobs and places in schools. But their plight remains dire.

Most Dalits, like Parwan, live in destitute villages of rickety mud and thatch huts with no electricity or running water, kept down by ancient prejudice and caste-based politics.

In much of rural India, people from lower castes are barred from using upper-caste drinking wells, kept out of temples and denied spots in village. Ignoring the prohibitions is often met with violence.

In times of calamity, their situation is no better.

"Caste hierarchy is a source of deep emotions in India. In the face of these emotions it is difficult for the law or the army to do anything," said Chandrabhan Prasad, a New Delhi-based caste expert. "The rescuers have their caste loyalty and will try rescue their own first."

Faced with indifference and even hostility from many officials, one group of Dalits gave up waiting for help and waded into the neck-deep water in search of their kin.
"What can we do?" Parwan said, after being angrily shooed away by Singh for again asking to be given a boat to help his village.

"I'm just a Harijan," Parwan added, using a euphemism for Dalits coined by Indian pacifist icon Mohandas K. Gandhi. It means "child of God."

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