In a disturbing incident that has been reported in the Odisha media, around 25 Dalit families are said to have been barred from entering three shelters at the height of Cyclone Fani, which made landfall in the state on May 3.
After reportedly being turned away from the shelters by upper-caste people who were already inside, some of the families, which included elderly people and children, reportedly took shelter near a banyan tree that had been uprooted by the cyclone’s strong winds, news reports have said. The three shelthers were located within a radius of approximately 4 km.
The news first broke in Odia newspaper Samvad on May 8, days after the cyclone struck the state. The article reported that the incident had taken place in Biripadia village – which is part of the revenue village Patali and the Pratapramchandrapur panchayat – and that only eight families had been affected.
But in a follow-up video from the village that has since gone viral, people say that all 25 Dalit families in that hamlet – about 85 people in all – were denied shelter.
“The upper-caste people in the village had us removed [from the shelter] because we are of the Dom caste,” claimed Shail Jena, a woman from Biripadia, in the video recorded by Anil Kumar Mallick, a member of the Bahujan Student and Youth Front, who visited the village on May 8. “Trees had fallen nearby so we took shelter near those. All members of the 25 houses, including the elderly, children and women, had to shelter under these trees. People turned on us, calling us ‘Harijan’ and ‘Doms’.”
Bishnupada Sethi, Odisha’s Special Relief Commissioner, said that he had heard of the incident through the media, but was still waiting for a report from the collector about it. That said, he said that the incident “has an element of truth”.
“This kind of practice by socially dominant people is common in that area,” Sethi said. “I can say that it is unfortunate, heinous and the government has to take strong action. We should appeal to human beings to behave like humans. They should give space to children, sick people, women and disabled.”
The first shelter the Dalit families reportedly approached was a small two-room school in Biripadia hamlet. The village’s upper-caste people were already there and did not allow them to enter, Mallick said in a conversation with Scroll.in.
Mallick added that he had visited the school and found that it would not have had enough space to shelter 85 people, even if they had been allowed entry.
The second shelter was a tin-roofed house, which was also full. The third shelter was around 4 km away in Patali, Mallick said, where they were first allowed to enter and then made to leave after about an hour.
This village cluster does not have a separate cyclone shelter, Mallick said, which meant that the entire village had to seek shelter in these public buildings.
Mallick said that while he and his group headed out to Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts for relief work on May 4, the day after the cyclone, because there was no electricity or mobile connectivity, he did not hear of this incident until he returned to Bhubaneswar and was able to switch on his phone.
He visited the village on May 8, and after interviewing people there, went to the District Collector’s office in Puri to put their case to him. The Collector distributed polythene sheets to the families and also gave each family one kg of rice, Mallick said, but no district official had yet visited the village.
Odisha Special Relief Commissioner Sethi said that he had witnessed a similar incident of discrimination in Puri district 2004-’05, when he was with the United Nations Development Programme. Flood waters had entered the houses of lower-caste people which were at a lower elevation, but the upper-caste school teacher who had the key to the local shelter refused to open it until Sethi intervened. No action was taken against this teacher at that time, Sethi said.
Sethi confirmed that not all villages along the coast have cyclone shelters. These shelters typically hold 1,000 people each. The government has built 879 cyclone shelters and identified around 4,000 buildings as temporary shelters within a three-kilometre radius of the 480-kilometre vulnerable coast line.
Mobile networks and electricity services have still not resumed in Puri, but the government is distributing relief material and is seeking approval to build around 5 lakh homes before the monsoon, Sethi said.
Mallick said said that other Scheduled Caste people in the Biripadia village cluster were not as badly affected. “This group of people has lived in the village for more than 60 years, but have no land titles and have not even been able to make their own caste certificates that would qualify them for government benefits such as housing,” he added.
Only three of the 25 Dalit houses in Biripadia had tin roofs, a man said in the video Mallick recorded. The rest are all made of mud and have been destroyed.
“Everyone of us ran towards the school [when the cyclone hit],” the man said in the video. “They did not allow any of us inside. At that time, there was a lot of rain also. What can be a greater injustice than this? But as they say, ‘the land belongs to the strongest.’ We could not do anything.”