A Dalit family in Vellore district was denied access to a crematorium following which relatives of a 55-year-old man had to winch the body from a bridge to the ground. A day after a video of this incident went viral on social media, the Tamil Nadu government allotted 50 cents of poramboke land (which is not assessed and is outside the revenue accounts) for the cremation of Dalits. The Madras High Court was quick to question the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to allot a different cremation ground for Dalits, saying it amounted to perpetuating the caste system.
The Madras HC has made similar observations earlier too. In a 2008 case involving a dispute over a burial ground, Justice K Chandru ordered the Madurai Corporation to end the system of allotting separate crematorium. “At least in the departure from this world there can be unity so that apartheid may not be practised by the official acts of the Corporation,” he had said. Again in 2009, the HC pulled up officials in Tiruchy after they “looked the other way” when Dalits were not allowed to use a crematorium-cum-graveyard constructed under the government’s AGAMT (Anaithu Grama Anna Marumalarchi Thittam) scheme.
This programme, launched in 2006, is aimed at setting up infrastructure in rural areas of the state. Moreover, the Tamil Nadu Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department has schemes to safeguard funeral rights for Dalits, including provision of land and ensuring access to crematoriums. It also provides Rs 500 as subsidy for meeting funeral expenses for Dalit families earning less than Rs 24,000 per annum. There is another scheme to lay roads that will link their hamlets to the burial ground.
Despite such schemes, there seems to be a gap between the department’s intention and the ground reality. There needs to be a holistic approach to tackle this malaise. Till then, finding space for the dead in the common burial/cremation ground will continue to be a pipedream for Dalits.