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Repeated mistakes in relief efforts

Dec 18, 2012

Despite years of conflicts, the Assam government is yet to develop a practical policy of responding to the recurring crises. Ratna Bharali Talukdar reports.

For a quarter century, Assam's Bodo heartland has been wracked by conflicts between different communities, accompanied by indiscriminate killings, burning of villages, and large-scale displacement of innocent people. Peace has remained elusive in this troubled zone, and the endless conflicts have made the lives of lakhs of people more uncertain. Hunger and poverty are everywhere.

The most recent round of clashes that broke out during July, between factions of Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslim settlers, left 112 people dead and another 88 injured. The fighting broke out first in Kokrajhar, in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) which is ruled by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), and immediately spread to Chirang and two other neighbouring districts of Dhubri and Bangaigaon in Lower Assam. Nearly five lakh people from both communities were temporarily displaced, most of them agriculturists.

The displaced persons initially took shelter in 340 makeshift relief camps in the conflict-hit districts. Feeding and providing basic facilities - safe drinking water, sanitation - to such a huge number of people was an uphill task for the administration and the state government. Simultaneously the government had to arrange for adequate security to facilitate the return of those whose houses were not burned but who had also fled their homes and taken shelter in relief camps out of panic. On top of this, the administration was also burdened with the additional task of keeping vigil in the abandoned villages to protect the properties left unattended by panicked villagers from looters.

The administration initially made efforts to provide regular rations in every relief camp, and also to ensure the health of people. Apart from providing regular supplies of rice, dal, edible oil and potatoes, free health check-ups were also arranged; doctors attended the camps each day to address health risks of those forced to live amidst the congestion and squalor. Temporary latrines were installed as well, but their numbers were not sufficient, and sanitary levels dropped quickly.

From the beginning, however, the government's main focus was to get the displaced people back to their villages as soon as possible, and vacate the camps. A rehabilitation grant was established, and the numbers of people in the relief camps came down to 30,652. The administration claimed that each family whose house was burned was provided three bundles of tin-sheets (21 sheets), a rehabilitation grant of Rs.22,700 and one month of rations to rebuild their lives upon their return to their villages.

However, many such displaced families alleged that they have been forced to vacate the camps without providing necessary rehabilitation grant. There were also complaints that the grants were simply not enough, given the large-scale losses people had incurred.

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Ratna Bharali Talukdar is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. This article has been generated under the media fellowship offered by The Akshaya Patra-OneWorld Media Fellowships on Hunger, 2012.

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