October 15, 2006 : Inclusion: Resettling the Dalits
by Bronwyn CurranSAMANTHANPETTAI, Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu, Oct 15: From the rooftop of house number 332 in the uniform row of new pink-coated concrete homes, 14-year-old Vinotkumar can glimpse the ocean that rose in a roaring black wall of water nearly two years ago. The tsunami swept away his family’s old thatch-and-mud hut, along with most of this traditional Tamil fishing village in southern India.
As one of the 10 “untouchable” Dalit low-caste families of Samanthanpettai, Vinotkumar’s family lived on the other side of the railway track that runs along the coastline. Before the tsunami, caste segregation applied in fishing villages up and down this stretch of the Bay of Bengal shore in Tamil Nadu state’s Nagapattinam district, with the seafront side of the tracks reserved for the less low-caste fisher families.
Two years on, in the post-tsunami era of shiny new permanent settlements, the “untouchables” and the fisher families of Samanthanpettai are all living on the same block, despite their caste differences.
“Now the Dalits are on par with us in housing. There are still 50 fisher families waiting for a new house, while all the Dalit families of our village have got their new houses already,” points out the treasurer of Samanthanpettai’s local “panchayat” council, S. Murugaiyam.
On Boxing Day 2004, the wrong side of the tracks was the right place to be.
The tsunami waves swept 148 seafront fisherfolk of Samanthanpettai’s 2,500 people to their deaths, but the 10 “untouchable” families, living a few hundred metres back from the shore, all survived. Later on the bodies of fisher families were found washed up in the ruins of the Dalits’ huts. More than 7,000 people were killed by the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, of at least 12,400 casualties along India’s southern coastline.
At Samanthanpettai two years later, 340 identical new homes sit on government land a kilometre behind the palm-fringed old village, housing 330 fisher families and 10 Dalit families. Each 320-square-foot house has a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, a toilet, a terrace, and stairs to an open-air rooftop. Paved roads run between the housing blocks and electricity lights each house. Some families have installed their own water pumps, TVs and video players. The housing colony was completed by the Mata Amritanandamayi Math religious foundation in December 2005.
Most agree it’s a big step up from the way the villagers lived before the tsunami. But challenges persist: the groundwater plumbed by the new settlement’s handpumps is saline, so residents rely on limited rations of drinking water from a water-tanker that visits daily; and people still wander to the forest or the beach instead of using the latrines installed in their new homes.
Across Tamil Nadu 5,398 families are now in permanent housing as of October 2006. Another 15,774 families – of which 15,352 are in Nagapattinam district - are still in temporary shelters while their homes are being built.
Vinotkumar’s father C. Veerasamy, whose “untouchable” status restricts him to casual labour like digging trenches or picking coconuts, points to cracks in the walls of his new home, and explains why he thinks it’s not enough.
“I have two wives with five children each. This isn’t big enough for all of us. We should’ve got two houses. Now the cracks are showing. I’m worried it might crumble.”
Vinotkumar was on the beach making sandcastles among the fishing boats when the tsunami hit. He saved his youngest siblings from the invading sea.
“People started shouting ‘The sea is racing!’ I saw big black water charging towards us. I ran home and found my littlest brother and sister inside. I grabbed them and fled,” the 14-year-old recalls.
Vinothkumar and his sister Vinodhini, 13, are now at the local government school with other fisher family children. They’re getting the same education as the fisher family kids, and sit in the same new desks and benches supplied by UNICEF.
Sitting in one of the new classroom blocks, Vinodhini ties up her braids with long white ribbons. She dreams of becoming a doctor.
“I like our new home. It’s better than our old place,” Vinodhini says during recess at the Sammanthanpettai Municipal Middle School.
Subashri, 10, daughter of fisherman Subramaniyam, wants to be a teacher. She wears a red bindi on her forehead and gold earrings to match her bangles.
“Before the tsunami I sat on the floor during classes. Now I sit at a desk and chair.”
UNICEF has trained two of the school’s teachers in advanced teaching methods, under its Quality Education Program.
“It’s been very beneficial for the students,” says senior teacher Soundarambal. “Now we are applying the Activities Based Learning methods we were taught. It helps the children learn faster.”
Every child in the high-spirited crowd swarming out the gates of the end of the day wears a UNICEF backpack. The stationary and teaching materials have been supplied by UNICEF. UNICEF installed the school’s first-ever latrines. But no-one’s using the school toilets.
Nor are families in the 340 new houses using their new latrines.
“There’s no running water,” says Lakshmi, one of Veerasamy’s wives, to explain why she still ventures into the forest even at night, instead of using the house latrine. Yet the bathroom is stacked with buckets full of water from the groundwater pump. Veerasamy’s wives have converted the bathroom into a laundry.
In India barely more than one-third of people have access to improved sanitation facilities, according to UNICEF’s Progress for Children 2006 report on Water and Sanitation.
“When the tsunami hit, the entire community were not used to toilet facilities or even proper hygiene practices,” said UNICEF’s Tsunami Recovery Program Officer for Tamil Nadu, Barbara Atherly.
“It’s something we made a conscious effort to work with, through wide communications campaigns. When people were first in temporary shelters, the percentage of toilet use was zero. Now it’s increased to between 55 and 60 percent in tsunami-affected areas. But it’s mostly women and children who are now using them. Many of the men are still reluctant.”
In house number 215 of the new Samanthanpettai settlement, Subashri’s mother Tamilselvi, whose baby was swept from her arms as she waded through neck-high waters after the sea invaded, says the latrine is too close to her makeshift cooking area.
Most families have set up their cooking areas on the back steps, near the latrine room, instead of the kitchen area provided inside. Many use the interior kitchen as a clothes-drying area instead.
For Veerasamy’s fisherfolk neighbours, the biggest threat now to their post-tsunami lives is the dwindling catch.
In the wake of the tsunami the fishing community, who suffered the highest casualties and lost 84,000 boats, were showered with new motorized fibreglass boats, in many cases replacing traditional catamarans.
“But there are less fish in the sea,” laments Tamilselvi’s husband Subramaniyam. “Before the tsunami, we never came back empty-handed.”
It’s a lament echoed up and down the Tamil Nadu coast.
Coupled with rising diesel costs, each fishing venture out to sea is a financial risk.
“Now we never know if we’re going to catch anything. At the same time we have to pay 200 rupees (4.5 dollars) for fuel and hire extra labour. If we come back empty-handed, we make a loss and get into debt.”
Subramaniyam has run up a 5,000 rupee (114 dollar) debt. He pays 250 rupees a week in interest.
That’s barely covered by the 1,000 rupees (23 dollars) worth of fish a month he’s pulled in for the last three months -- one-tenth of what he used to fetch before the tsunami.
Other fishermen have simply stopped fishing.
“My husband’s barely gone to sea in the last two years. He just lolls around on the beach all day,” laments Arumaikannu, 28, still mourning her eight-year-old son Jayasilam who was taken by the tsunami.
Depression among fishermen and under-employed “untouchables” has intensified pre-existing drinking habits. Veerasamy’s breath is laced with alcohol in the mornings. At dusk idle youth, who would normally be out fishing, play marbles by the railway track. Older men sit on tarpaulins under palm trees, or mend nets on the sands.
The most far-reaching change in their lives is less immediately visible: a gradual breakdown of traditional caste segregation.
“The biggest change since the tsunami is the fact that there is more social inclusion,” said UNICEF’s Atherly.
“The separation by caste and class has been to a large extent diminished. All categories of persons were given the same kind of housing. There was no distinction. We are seeing it not only in the community itself, but in schools as well. The fact they now have furniture, that children of all castes sit in classrooms on furniture, raises their standards. Because they were a fishing community they never had furniture before. Now they do, and the children feel now they’re really studying in school.”