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Nepal Dalits discriminated against for quake relief

Nepal's caste system leaves some without relief after deadly quake and few options for justice

12.08.2015
Nepal Dalits discriminated against for quake relief

By Deepak Adhikari

KATHMANDU, Nepal

Two weeks after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated central Nepal in April, Saraswati Sunar waited for hours at a secondary school on the outskirts of Kathmandu, expecting a tarpaulin and blanket from a charity group.

Word had reached her that World Vision, an international charity, was distributing tarpaulins and blankets to the earthquake survivors of the hamlet of Ramkot, on the capital’s western hills.

What she was not expecting was an assault by her neighbors that left her with a fractured left shoulder.

“We heard that there were only 60 packages [of relief materials]. So when my name was not called, I asked the volunteers. They said that my relief material was handed to [someone else],” Sunar, 35, a member of the lower-caste Dalits, or so-called untouchables, told Anadolu Agency.

The earthquake had made her family of four homeless, but she had been subjected to such discrimination before -- Dalits are on the lower rung of the controversial class-pyramid known as the caste system. So she shrugged it off.  

She was, however, worried about Khadga Bahadur Bishwakarma, a Dalit neighbor whose family of eight, including six daughters, was struggling to sleep after their mud and stone house was reduced to rubble.

At around 6 p.m., the stock of relief material dwindled and her hopes faded away. Around that time, Sunar asked the volunteers why Bishwakarma was not getting the relief. That was when three upper caste neighbors rained blows on her, as roughly 100 people watched in shock.

Leading the trio of attackers was an influential local and cadre of the Nepali Congress party. “[He], his son and brother not only attacked me, but also humiliated me using abusive words about my caste,” Sunar recalled.

Sunar rushed to file complaints wherever they would be received, first at the local police unit and recently at the National Dalit Commission. But her attempt to get justice was thwarted first by her assailant, who according to her, pulled strings to foil it, and then by a cabal of police officers reluctant to pursue the case.

The local ward secretary suggested she seek justice from Kathmandu’s chief district administrative officer. She was on her way to the district administrative office on May 12 when a second powerful earthquake struck Nepal, killing more than 100 people.

When she reached Babar Mahal, an area packed with government offices, she found a notice saying that it was closed.  Her next step, the Kathmandu Police Office, saw police officers cast suspicion on her claims. 

“After making rounds of government offices, I lost the crucial week’s deadline to file a public offence case against him,” she said. 

Sunar's assailant was recently summoned by the National Dalit Commission in Lalitpur, a district south of Kathmandu where the lean man, who carried an air of defiance, confidently arrived at their office. 

The 44-year-old turned down an interview request from Anadolu Agency, visibly angered by the question. 

Not far from Ramkot, Sil Kumar Lama, 30, a former migrant worker with years of experience in Gulf countries, stood amid the ruins of his small mud and stone house nestled in the hills.

For several weeks after the earthquake, Lama looked down on the vast expanse of Kathmandu, hoping someone from government or a charity group would come to assist his recovery efforts.

Lama is a member of Tamangs, a marginalized group living in the earthquake-hit districts surrounding Kathmandu. The earthquake rendered Lama, who worked as a welder in a nearby factory, jobless. His family of five, including an elderly mother and a four-year-old son, were barely surviving.

 “We saw influential local people from political parties receiving relief, although their houses had withstood the quake. No one bothered about us,” Lama told Anadolu Agency. 

Sixteen days after the quake, Nepal Army soldiers handed a single tent for three families.

A few kilometers down the road from his house, Lama saw big trucks with banners proclaiming aid hurtle towards Gorkha, the epicenter of the April earthquake and Dhading district, west of Kathmandu.

“Nepal Army soldiers noted down our names and promised aid, but we haven’t got anything,” he said. Lama also saw volunteers distributing fried noodles and sacks of rice to people near the major highway connecting Kathmandu with the Tarai plains.

“But they didn’t bring the relief over here. Maybe we were forgotten because we live a bit far from the main road,” he said.

Such discrimination during the distribution of aid, however, has not gone completely unnoticed.

In a report published in June 1, Amnesty International said “it received reports suggesting that longstanding patterns of discrimination against members of groups such as Dalit... had also resulted in their unequal access to relief.”

“There are reports of discrimination in the distribution of relief including on the basis of caste and gender, as well as political favoritism and patronage without regard to actual need,” the report noted.

The report cited cases of discrimination including that by a Maoist leader in Kavre district, who guaranteed relief to a woman in return for a vote for his party. In another instance, a Nepali Congress secretary of Nuwakot was found distributing relief materials to his party supporters.

The unequal distribution of relief exposed “structural discrimination” rife in Nepali society and politics, said Sambriddhi Kharel, a sociologist specializing on Nepal’s Dalits.

“The Dalits were already excluded, they were already vulnerable. They lack access to these resources and access is not just [by] road, it’s also about knowledge and education,” she told Anadolu Agency.

Kharel said preparedness for disasters and collecting the viewpoints of vulnerable communities could help prevent a repetition of such prejudice in future in the natural disaster prone country.

Others such as columnist Deepak Thapa have called, in a recent opinion piece, for the correcting of the ruling elites’ long-held cynical view on Tamangs and providing them with long overdue dignity and rightful space.

“As we enter the phase of recovery from a disaster that has devastated the lives of thousands of Tamangs, we have been provided with a golden opportunity to finally right all these years of discrimination,” Thapa wrote in The Kathmandu Post.

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