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Makeshift lives under conflict's shadow

Oct 30, 2009

For the internally displaced people living in India's north-eastern state of Assam, life is nowhere near normal. Living in refugee camps under pathetic conditions, they lack basic facilities such as clean water, sanitation and education, writes Ratna Bharali Talukdar.

Salabila, Assam: Marjina Khatun, 25, is exhausted. She has just returned home - a 10-foot square thatched shack with bamboo walls - after a 14-hour shift at a slab casting construction site. Her youngest child, Manowar, who is just 11 months, lies asleep on the floor, malnourished and naked.

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The shack - located in the Salabila Relief Camp in Assam’s Bongaigaon district - is depressingly quiet: Poverty, hunger and fatigue have blocked out the sounds that spell a happy home.

While Marjina’s life may look straight out of a scene from an art film with poverty as its backdrop, it is the real world for her and over 5,500 displaced migrant Muslim families languishing in nine relief camps in Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar districts of Assam since 1993.

The camps are located in Hapachara, Balajani, Tapatari, Salabila and Bardhup in Bangaigaon district; and Bangaldoba, Sanlatari, Nangalbhanga and Bengtal in Kokrajhar.

These Bengali-speaking Internally Displaced People (IDPs) were uprooted from their ancestral villages, which number around 45 across two districts, during violent clashes between the Bodos, the single largest plains tribe in the state, and the migrant Muslim settlers during the peak of a vigorous Bodo-led pro-statehood movement in 1993.

During these clashes, 64 people of this community, chiefly poor farmers, were killed in Bangaigaon and 36 in Kokrajhar. Moreover, another 25 were killed in sporadic incidents between 1993 and 2000.

For Marjina, a mother of four, the conflict spelt unending tragedy. She and others like her have been reduced to daily wage earners in the very region they were once farming families and where they had lived in their self-sufficient ancestral homes.

Today, they live in camps that lack basic amenities and offer no access to proper healthcare, education and social security.

Take the case of Salabila Relief Camp. Spread over 64 ‘bighas’ (1 hectare = approx. 6.5 ‘bighas’), the camp is home to 1,310 families (over 6,500 people). There are only 40 latrines; of the 56 tube wells provided by the government, only 22 are functional. Poor sanitary conditions and a critical water crisis have resulted in the practice of open defecation and appalling hygiene throughout the year. The hot summer months are, however, the worst with most of the children suffering from chicken pox.

"The search for sustainable livelihoods continues to be a problem"

Sarbeswar Bayan, a surveillance worker of the nearby Dompara Mini Public Health Centre (PHC), points out that in such unhygienic conditions, chicken pox, malaria, diarrhoea, jaundice and other water borne diseases immediately take on endemic proportions.

What is worse is that the camp dweller cannot access the indifferent health care that is provided - a doctor visits the local PHC once a week - because of the distances and lack of time since every working day matters.

The search for sustainable livelihoods continues to be a problem. Most find it difficult to get even small jobs because the local population continues to be hostile and has resisted every move made by the administration to rehabilitate these displaced families.

For instance, in 2006 when the Salabila inhabitants were promised a permanent settlement as their earlier relief camp at Goroimari was being acquired for expanding National Highway 31, the locals opposed the move and so these displaced people found themselves in a makeshift camp. In fact, the hostility they face is unrelenting and violence is an ever present reality.

Amidst the disease, poverty and hunger, the rice the government provides to each family usually lasts only for 10 days in a month.

The worst affected are the children. For 10 straight years, between 1993 and 2003, they had no access to education. It was only when the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) Mission decided to set up a centre under the Education Guarantee Scheme in Goroimari district did some form of schooling begin. (The SSA is the government's flagship programme for achievement of universalisation of primary education in a time-bound manner.)

"The women here are quite capable of taking decisions and getting things done if given a chance"

But it still leaves much to be desired. The Salabila camp has 1,639 children between 0-14 years. Most of them go to primary school but many drop out by middle school as they have to help out their parents. Under the SSA, two Sanyogi Siksha Kendras (SSK) - which are usually meant for out-of-school children but serve as formal schools in camps - provide primary education.

A total of 543 primary students have enrolled this year and are being taught by six teachers, who receive a nominal Rs 1,500 per month. Only one SSK has been covered under the government midday meal (MDM) programme, according to Amir Hussain, a teacher and secretary of the camp management committee.

In any case, he claims, the rations provided under MDM are often inadequate. According to Hussain, at the SSK he teaches there are 419 students though food comes for only 279.

Also missing from the camp is an ‘anganwadi’ centre (government-run creche) that can care for children between 0-6 years, lactating mothers, pregnant women and underweight adolescent girls under the Supplementary Nutritional Programme of Integrated Children Development Scheme (ICDS).

None of camps have a woman in an important position on camp management committees and this may explain the lack of focus in addressing the pressing problems faced by women and children. The women here are quite capable of taking decisions and getting things done if given a chance.

In fact, Marjina is one of several women who have become breadwinners for their families. She often boards an overcrowded truck arranged by contractors to transport them early morning to construction sites located in distant places for slab casting work. The job ensures them a relatively high wage but with so many of women asking for such jobs, they are not easy to come by.

Says Marjina: “We get Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 46.8) per day for such jobs and some extra money for overtime duty. Normally, I get such jobs for 10-12 days each month.”

Marjina’s experiences as a conflict refugee testify to the government's failure to rehabilitate an extremely vulnerable community. Some 16 years have gone by since she moved into a camp and she has no idea of how many more years she will have to spend in this ghetto. Peace is a distant dream that many here are still hoping will become a reality one day.

Says Hamida, who has grown up as an IDP in the Salabila camp: “During these long uncertain years, many people have visited us - sometimes in Bangaigaon relief camp, sometimes in Goroimari and sometimes here. They always talk of peace. But wherever we move, there is always local protest against our presence. I have seen how young girls are practically sold in these camps in the name of marriage. Getting two meals, some education, clothes are all luxury here. This is not the peace we are longing for.”

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