Lower-caste people get less aid when disaster strikes - report

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 28 January 2014 16:44 GMT

Barefooted men take a break while wading through flood waters on the outskirts of Karachi after torrential rain. Picture August 4, 2013, REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

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Disasters affect lower-caste people particularly harshly, first because they are more vulnerable, and second because they get less aid or compensation for losses than others, a new report says

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Discrimination faced by lower-caste communities has not only left millions of people across the world more vulnerable to disasters, but has also resulted in many receiving less aid when a natural calamity strikes, according to a report launched on Tuesday.

The "Equality in Aid" report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network http://www.idsn.org/ said around 260 million people in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nigeria, Senegal, Yemen and Japan face caste-based prejudice and human rights violations in their everyday lives.

Their plight is worsened when a disaster like a flood or a drought occurs because many do not get the same access to emergency aid such as clean water, dry food rations or shelter as their higher-caste neighbours.

"Even prior to a natural hazard like a drought, floods, typhoons or earthquakes, Dalit communities are more vulnerable and exposed to disasters," the report said, referring to the low caste-communities based in South Asia.

"During an emergency, Dalits' precarious living conditions and lack of social protection mean that they are often the worst affected. But their status as 'untouchables' and the social exclusion they face affect the kind of emergency relief they receive."

The report cited examples of caste-based discrimination in aid distribution from various disasters in South Asia, such as the 2001 earthquake in India's Gujarat state, the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and the Pakistan floods in 2010.

For example, lower-caste communities were refused food at a relief camp in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, while during the same disaster in India, Dalits were exploited for their labour to remove corpses and debris.

India is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, and many of its 1.2 billion people live in areas vulnerable to natural hazards such as floods, cyclones, droughts and earthquakes. The 2011 census showed there were at least 200 million Dalits in India – excluding Muslim and Christian Dalits.

Around 76 percent of India's coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, while 59 percent of the country is vulnerable to earthquakes, 10 percent to floods and river erosion and 68 percent to droughts.


Experts say more frequent and more intense extreme weather events caused by climate change mean that countries like India need to make it a high priority to improve their planning and response to calamities.

The report, funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Office (ECHO), said one of the biggest problems facing low-caste groups was that they have very few assets and therefore do not qualify for compensation - pushing them further into poverty and deprivation.

"What assets Dalits do have, such as unregistered fishing boats or nets and make-shift houses without land titles, often go unrecognised as formally owned by them, thereby hiding significant disaster losses," the report said.

"In a serious disaster situation many Dalits use loans to cope e.g. to provide for lost homes, food and medicine, exposing them to a vicious cycle of bonded labour, where whole families can become indentured servants to repay a loan often several times over."

The report called on governments, civil society and international agencies  publicly to recognise the problem of caste-based discrimination in aid and to form a common approach towards addressing it.

"While the state is the primary duty bearer in fulfilling human rights obligations within its borders in disaster situations, NGOs, U.N. agencies and international donors assisting disaster risk reduction and response have a responsibility to respect human rights obligations," the report concluded.

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