The Bihar flood made no distinction between high- and low-castes in choosing victims,and nor does the biting winter cold. But it appears the Saharsa district administration does. In Sonbarsha Raj,one of the three flood-affected blocks in the district,you have to be Dalit,Mahadalit (a group of 20 Scheduled and extremely backward castes) or Muslim to receive a relief blanket.
Upper-caste flood victims,despite being in exactly the same pitiful state,do not qualify.
The blankets have been donated by the Red Cross,the governments of Gujarat and Jharkhand,and some private groups. They are being distributed by the district administration as per lists prepared by government officials with help from panchayat workers.
In Soha,a village of poor upper castes,over 1,000 flood-hit people were ignored during the distribution of blankets. Chiranjiv Singh,a flood victim,says: Panchayat workers said the blankets were only for Dalits,Mahadalits and Muslims. A flood victim is a flood victim. No distinction has ever been made earlier.
Singh is particularly upset with the sudden appearance of the Mahadalit category. He sees a conspiracy: the district administration is trying to please the NDA government that has coined the Mahadalit concept to split the Dalit vote, he says. Bambam Kumar agrees: Had they used the word poor,we would have understood, he says. Harinarayan Singh,a small farmer,says there are hundreds of people in the village who need blankets.
In Shahpur village,Lalan Kumar Yadav,husband of the village mukhiya Anita Devi,shows an application listing hundreds of OBC flood victims who have not been considered for blankets. Yadav says there are enough blankets for everybody,but they are being distributed solely at the discretion of officials. According to him,Over a thousand Minorities in the panchayat area got blankets while other poor people just watched. He will take the matter to Chief Minister Nitish Kumars Janta Darbar,Yadav says.
The resentment over the discrimination spilled over recently when local CPM cadres locked up Sonbarsha Block Development Officer Mohammed Qasim Ansari in his office for six hours without food. The CPM called its agitation flood curfew,and kept it up for four days in the district.
There is in fact,no specific instruction or written order from the state government to adopt any caste or religious criteria in the distribution of relief. But the district administration issued verbal instructions to panchayat workers to prepare lists of beneficiaries starting with Dalits,Mahadalits and Muslims.
Saharsa District Magistrate R Laxman told The Indian Express: We have not been told by the state government to follow any criteria. But as the stock of blankets is limited,and we have to follow some criteria. We have to give it first to Dalits,Mahadalits,Muslims and other poor sections.
Asked if a formal order had been issued,Laxman said: It is just verbal instruction to compile list on basis of castes.
Disaster Management Additional Commissioner Pratyay Amrit,described the idea as sheer stupidity. How can they (the administration) think like this? A flood victim is a flood victim,that is all, he said.
No caste or religious criteria were followed when the government distributed Rs 2,250 and a quintal of grain to each flood-hit family recently. The distribution from the central relief fund is almost over,and the next phase of rehabilitation,including the renovation and construction of homes for 3.5 lakh people,is about to start.