Dalits, disasters and discrimination

Flood impacted Dalit house in Rajapur, Bardiya, in 2010.

Last week, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Authority (NDRRMA) warned that this year's monsoon might cause even more destruction in Nepal than last year. And sure enough, when the monsoon arrived on 11 June it brought heavy rains across Nepal, triggering deadly landslides and floods.

Already, the death count is in the dozen, with many more missing. And this is just the start of the rainy season.

Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the suffering caused by monsoon disasters. They believe that monsoon-triggered landslides and floods hit all sections of Nepal equally. In reality, some people suffer more than others. In disasters in Nepal poorer  populations living in vulnerable areas, particularly Dalits, face greater burdens. 

‘Dalits are frequently the worst affected in disasters,’ says a 2013 International Dalit Solidarity Network report. ‘They are often systematically excluded from relief and recovery efforts.’ 

Dalits living on steep slopes and riverbanks and other marginal land face increased exposure to the landslide and flooding. In the mountains, Dalit settlements often sit on dangerously sloping land. The scattered Dalit settlements often lack electricity, drinking water and other basic amenities.

And because of remoteness and neglect, development work and government services reach these communities last or not at all.  

In the Tarai, exploitation and discrimination have pushed Dalits to live in more dangerous low-lying land where flooding is most severe, and they cannot afford to build pakka houses with raised foundations to better withstand flooding. The so-called upper castes live in elevated areas in pakka houses that remain intact during disaster.

In an article ‘Floods Devastate Nepal’s Southern Plains’, Peter Gill and Bhola Paswan describe the deprivation of Saptari's landless Dalits. ‘Poor Dalits are living in a floodplain not because of their own choice. The historical, social and other factors forced them to live in flood prone areas,’ they note. 

In local development work, disaster risk and Dalit concerns often get neglected  A few years ago, a Gulmi gaupalika constructed a rural road above several Dalit houses. Local elites reportedly forced construction of the road without any environmental impact assessment and without adequate participation of local Dalits. 

During the 2019 monsoon, landslides washed away two of these Dalit homes, killing eight people. Many people believe that the poorly planned road killed the Dalits.  

Non-inclusive development often escalates Dalit vulnerability. In public meetings, elites often drown out Dalit voices. For example, in 2013, in Khara, a remote Rukum village, the upper caste village secretary used the budget meant for Dalits for local road construction. He claimed Dalits along with non-dalits used the road. In reality, the road mostly benefited the upper castes. 

They bought motorbikes and tractors to carry goods. But Dalit lives didn't change. Worse, due to haphazard use of the bulldozers, Dalit houses close to the newly constructed road faced increased risk of landslide. 

Flood devastated Dalit settlement near Holiya, Banke in 2012.

Unequal disaster response

Dalits live in poverty, they lag behind in income and assets. Disaster-related stress can overwhelm them, and caste inequities shows itself especially during time of crisis

“Poor Dalits living in disaster prone areas lose whatever they have accumulated such as food grains or household assets throughout the year in recurring flooding. Urgent action is required by the government to break this vicious cycle of poverty and vulnerability,” says Kathmandu University's Purna Nepali, who recently conducted research on natural disasters and Dalits in Saptari and Siraha.

In addition, Dalits often confront unfair practices during disaster response. In 2008, during the Kosi flood, Dalits faced unequal distribution of relief because of the lack of Dalit representation. Similarly, in 2017 Tarai floods Dalit families in Loharpattai, Mahottari reported discrimination in relief distribution. Local leaders favoured their caste group and political party cadres.

For weeks, the Dalit families slept along the Janakpur-Jayanagar railway track. They were forced to live under an open sky.  Later, following media reports, another relief organisation provided tarps. 

In Bhaktapur in the 2015 earthquake local upper castes denied Dalits hot meals cooked in a community kitchen set up by a relief organisation. And upper castes did not want to share the shelter with Dalits. The practice of ‘untouchability’ was reinforced in the middle of the crisis, and they faced discrimination in receiving relief after the 2015 earthquake.

In the time of disaster, Dalits lack a strong voice within the government and relief organisations. The government and relief groups tend to overlook caste discrimination and the vulnerable situation of Dalits. As a result, pre-existing vulnerabilities and exclusion expands.

A ‘blanket approach’ to disaster relief programs usually ignores discrimination and untouchability. In the 2017 Tarai floods, one relief organisation targeted flood-affected Dalit families in Rautahat district because they were the district’s poorest families.

However, a newly elected Ward Chairperson blocked the targeted distribution of relief packages to Dalits.  “Distribute to all the ward population," he threatened, "or else go to another location.”

After days of non-cooperation from local authorities, the relief organisation pulled out of the district, leaving the flood-affected Dalit families deserted and distressed.

Flood-affected communities from Holiya, Banke crossing the Rapti River in 2013.

During disasters, Dalits also often face special difficulties overcoming bureaucratic hurdles. The privileged castes have आफ्नो मान्छे in government and get special treatment in relief distribution. ‘Upper’ caste people easily overcome legal hurdles, but Dalits face problems getting government relief because they lack legal documents.

Nepal's Constitution has guaranteed the rights to housing and quality of life and outlawed caste-based discrimination. But in reality, Dalits face greater risks because of centuries of discrimination and exploitation.

Dalits' weak presence in in decision-making processes leaves them without strong voice in disaster risk reduction and relief programs, trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Relocation of Dalits to safer locations could address their historical exposure to disaster. Additionally, post-disaster rebuilding could allow for a new beginning. If handled appropriately, post-disaster rebuilding could address their vulnerability.

During disasters, Dalits require enhanced attention from all sections of government and society. Awareness raising among relief workers about the pre-existing discrimination and vulnerabilities can help create inclusive disaster response, as can a proportionate number of relief workers from the Dalit community.

Shikhar Sharma is a participant of Dalit Reader's Writing Workshop, an initiative for academic advocacy on Dalit issues.

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