21-27 April 2017 #855

Disastrous discrimination

Dalits left behind as Nepal slowly recovers from the earthquake two years ago
Patrick Barron

Om Astha Rai

Natural disasters do not discriminate in who they impact. Yet individuals’ ability to recover is strongly shaped by systems of social and economic stratification. In Nepal, the caste people are born into determine the structures the opportunities they have in life. Even though caste discrimination is illegal, most lower caste groups continue to lag behind others with 90% of Dalits living below the poverty line.

Evidence from research shows that Dalits and other lower caste groups are facing particular barriers which are making recovery more challenging. The earthquakes did not affect those of low caste more than others --the houses of 44% of low castes were destroyed compared to 50% for high castes.

Common problems led to collective responses. After the quakes, frequent examples were found of people of different castes, including Dalits, helping each other and of sharing shelters. Some high caste people allowed landless Dalits to build shelters on their land. In the early post-earthquake period, low caste people were much more likely to have received aid than others (64% versus 39% of high caste people).

Concerted efforts by aid providers to ensure that Dalits and other low castes received support, strong community norms around distributing aid equally, and a sense of solidarity amongst the earthquake-affected that crossed identity lines combined to help low caste people cope in the immediate aftermath of the disasters.

The Asia Foundation’s Independent Impacts and Recovery Monitoring (IRM) surveyed almost 5,000 people with in-depth qualitative fieldwork at roughly six month intervals, allowing for an evaluation of which groups are recovering, which are not, and why. They found that the potential for pre-existing forms of exclusion and discrimination re-emerged with the shift from relief to reconstruction. Subsequent surveys have shown that low caste groups are now lagging in their recovery.

The third round of research (IRM-3) in September 2016 found that 82% of low caste people whose houses were impacted said they had yet to start rebuilding compared to 71% of high castes. Almost one-quarter of those of low caste said they had made no repairs to their temporary shelters compared to 11% of high caste people. Low caste people were twice as likely as high castes to report decreases in food consumption over the past year. And they were almost 50% more likely to say a family member continued to suffer from trauma than other groups.

Over time low caste groups have become increasingly less likely to receive aid compared to others (see figure below). Whereas a larger share of low caste people in the first round received aid than did others, this pattern has shifted over time.

Proportion who received aid – by caste

With relatively little aid available, and recovery slow, low caste groups turned to borrowing which is not helping them recover, they are still facing credit constraints and that there is a real risk for many of getting stuck in debt traps. Low caste people are more likely to have taken loans than others: 46% had taken out loans compared to 33% of high caste and 30% Janajatis.

Across all people interviewed, those who borrowed three times are the least likely to report that their livelihoods are recovering, and are the most likely to have seen decreases in food consumption. Repeated borrowing is also linked to people remaining in shelters. Those who borrowed were more likely to have had to sell assets (9%) compared to those who borrowed once (5%) and those who had not borrowed (2%).

Low caste people are also almost twice as likely as others to take loans from moneylenders (22% versus 12%) and relatives (33% versus 19% for high castes), both of whom charge far higher interest rates than other lenders. Moneylenders and relatives also charge low caste people higher interest rates than they charge others (2.7% per month versus 2.1% for moneylenders; 2.4% versus 1.9% for relatives).

Discrimination, often engrained in communities despite legal provisions, has had an impact in earthquake recovery. Tensions between displaced Dalits and upper castes in one village focused on access to drinking water from the public water tap. To avoid conflict, Dalits started collecting water in the early morning but others were not happy, Dalit children continued to face abuse, and there was pressure for them to return to their unsafe land.

The research found that Dalits were more likely than others to be living on the edge of settlements where land was unstable. Similar stories, centered around resettlement and access to water, were found in other villages visited. Many Dalits often perceive that aid providers are also discriminating against them. In IRM-2, 21% of Dalits did not agree that everyone could access aid equally compared to 8% of hill caste people.

Material disadvantages that pre-date the earthquakes make recovery much more difficult. Low caste groups have a lower asset base and levels of education. The literacy rate for Dalits is just 18% compared to the 48% national average. In Barunewshor village in Okhaldhunga district, high levels of illiteracy, a lack of collateral and an absence of social networks and information on how to approach financial institutions all had an impact. The research found that a lack of education also sometimes made it harder for Dalits to access some aid programs with them not understanding how to receive aid or able to fill out the forms required. The next round of data collection is underway and provisional findings will be available in June.

Patrick Barron is regional director for Conflict and Development at The Asia Foundation. Excerpted from The Asia Foundation’s blog, In Asia. patrick.barron@asiafoundation.org

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