Cyclone Fani: Caste in times of cyclone

Cyclone Fani not only brought material losses but also revealed the dark side of casteism and discrimination that the dalit families continued to face even at the time of despair

Photo by Arbinda Mahapatra and Biswaranjan Mishra
Photo by Arbinda Mahapatra and Biswaranjan Mishra

Sandeep Sahu

Binita Gochhayat still shudders as she recounts the frightening ordeal of that fateful day. “The thatched roof of our house was blown away early on as the wind started gathering speed. In panic, we ran to the school nearby, which was serving as a cyclone shelter. Many people had already taken shelter there. But we were not allowed entry. They said ‘You are doms. You cannot be allowed in,” the Dalit woman in Bidipadia village in Puri district said, the hurt still unmistakable in her voice.

Binita was in a group of 15 members of three Dalit families who lived on government land. Before rushing to the school, all of them had first gone to the houses of some upper caste villagers, mostly Brahmins, seeking temporary shelter. But they were all shooed away.

After a lot of pleading with folded hands, the group was allowed to come up but was asked to take shelter not in the main concrete building but an adjacent structure with an asbestos roof. With wind speed reaching 200 km/hr, the asbestos was soon blown away completely, exposing them to the wind and rain.

“For several hours, we sat there hunched on our back, our whole body drenched, praying to Lord Jagannath all the while to save us,” said Rina Mallick, another member of the group.

The moment the rains subsided, they rushed to their ‘homes’, only to find that they had been reduced to rubbles. In sheer desperation, they took shelter under a large banyan tree that had fallen under the impact of the cyclone. A week after the cyclone, they were still living under the trunk of the banyan tree when this reporter met them.

Rice, provided by the panchayat officials, was being cooked for the first time after the cyclone at the time. Some potatoes too were boiling. A little distance away, the children looked at the food being cooked longingly.

That caste is alive and kicking in the countryside is no surprise. But it was certainly a surprise – a very painful one at that – to find that even a tragedy of such mammoth proportions could not break the barriers of caste.

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