By Nita Bhalla and Sandhya Ravishankar
CHENNAI/NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of poor lower-caste families who lost their homes and jobs after devastating floods swept southern India have been neglected by government relief efforts, a survey conducted by two charities has found.
About 280 people have died and more than 400,000 have been displaced across Tamil Nadu state since torrential rains began in early November, swelling rivers and reservoirs and inundating the state capital Chennai and neighboring coastal districts.
A study of the first days of the floods found that although low-caste or "Dalit" families were the group worst hit by the floods, few had received any help, said National Dalit Watch and Social Awareness Society for Youth – Tamil Nadu.
"No relief has reached the community properly till now. During the distribution of food relief there has been priority to the families having concrete houses, people having connections with leaders of villages," the report said.
"Relief camps and medical facilities have been organized far away from the villages, or are in dominant caste areas which Dalit people cannot access due to the lack of transport and fear of discrimination and violence," it added.
Government officials in Cuddalore district said the report was incorrect and helping marginalized Dalit communities was considered a priority after a disaster.
"In times of inundation, Dalit colonies are usually more affected since they are in low-lying areas," Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Cuddalore's Monitoring Officer for Disaster Relief, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The state government is very sensitive to the needs of Dalits. For them, we have built a temporary shelter in record time."
The rains, the heaviest in a century, hit Chennai last week, putting some areas under eight feet (2.5 meters) of water, trapping people on rooftops with no power or communications.
The rains have now stopped, water levels are dropping, and the government has set up relief camps across Tamil Nadu. Dry food and tarpaulins are being distributed, but some interior areas have been difficult to reach due to damaged roads.
The survey polled 1,500 families in Cuddalore district, more than 40 percent of them Dalits, from Nov. 19 to 21. It found that 95 percent of damaged houses, 92 percent of livestock lost and 86 percent of crops lost belonged to Dalits.
Caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist in many parts of the country and low-caste Indians still face prejudice in every sector.
Aid workers say that in times of flood or drought, many Dalits do not get the same access as higher-caste Indians to emergency aid such as clean water, dry food rations or shelter.
In most Dalit villages surveyed in Cuddalore's Parangipettai and Bhuvanagiri blocks there was no clean drinking water, and in some areas dominant castes had refused to share their water sources with Dalits, the survey showed. Most Dalit villages also lack medical services, it added.
But government officials said the bulk of the relief budget had been spent on helping rebuild and repair over 70,000 damaged homes of Dalits.
"District and state government are aware and make conscious efforts to ensure that the poor and Dalits are given the greatest care," said Bedi.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla in New Delhi and Sandhya Ravishankar in Chennai, writing by Nita Bhalla, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)