Before it is too late

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

The wanton subversion of relief and rehabilitation in Gujarat.

THE survivors of the brutal mass violence in Gujarat today long, above all, just to get on with life. Many have been bereaved, an even greater number have been pauperised, and an entire community is alienated and traumatised. A large majority of those battered by the carnage are working class people, and with their characteristic mix of resilience, industry, fatalism and optimism, barely six months after the inferno devastated their homes, lives and trust, more than anything else they wish to pick up the frayed and tenuous strings of their lives, and begin all over again.

The relief camps in Ahmedabad and the rest of the state are now almost empty. To an external observer, this may lend credence to the State government's claims that normalcy has been restored, that rehabilitation has been accomplished, and that allegations that the survivors remain destitute and insecure are part of the mischievous propaganda of activists and politicians who have a vested interest to keep the communal cauldron simmering. This would have been true if the State had established relief camps, ensured justice and security, and mobilised the State machinery to muster the resources that the affected women, men and children would need to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. Such official efforts are elementary to good governance and a civilised polity, and since Independence this has indeed been the stated policy of governments in India in all instance of such major tragedies. There may have been failures of relief and rehabilitation, but not its open, wanton and deliberate perversion.

Public authorities in Gujarat not only refused to extend relief, or rehabilitate those destroyed by the waves of mass violence that followed the horrific torching of a railway compartment in Godhra, but systematically created roadblocks for other agencies which attempted to substitute for the State and forced the closure of relief camps after giving people a pittance to compensate for their losses. This impunity of the State is, in some ways, more grave than its complicity in the massacre that occurred in the wake of the tragedy in Godhra. This is because such impunity is unprecedented in the experience of independent India and also because the State authorities remain brazen and determined in their denial, unmoved by the enormity of the suffering of a section of its people, by the outrage of constitutional agencies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission, by judicial pronouncements, by media exposure, and by petitions at all levels including the highest in the land, by activists, concerned citizens and affected people.

The denial of relief and rehabilitation by the government of Gujarat is a harrowing and disgraceful tale of a premeditated, unrepentant, merciless and perverse exercise of public authority. It began in the immediate aftermath of the mass violence. Terrified survivors, women, men, girls and boys, fled to enclaves of safety that they located, with only the clothes on their backs. These shelters were mostly open spaces in Muslim ghettoes in cities, towns and villages; places of worship; schools; parks; and sometimes graveyards. Initially, people slept under the open sky. As the numbers continued to swell, to well over a hundred thousand people in Ahmedabad alone and more than half that number in other parts of the State, voluntary teams were formed, mostly in a spontaneous manner, to manage the camps. These teams mustered stockpiles of food supplies, medicines and drinking water, organised facilities for sanitation, and arranged cooks and health and sanitary workers.

As the weeks and months elapsed, the State was barely visible amidst these admirable but austere self-help efforts of the affected communities. After almost 10 days, the district administration began to supply the camps with uncooked food rations and arrange occasional visits of medical teams. In the two decades that I spent in the civil services, I have never observed a single instance earlier when the State did not lead relief operations after a major disaster, human-made or natural. The organisation of relief and rehabilitation is central to the training and traditions of the civil services. Governments in the past may have faltered in the outcomes of their programmes. But the Gujarat carnage of 2002 marks a sordid first in which civil service functionaries consented to merciless political dictates and cooperated to abdicate responsibility for relief and, over time, even to thwart community efforts to provide shelter and succour to the hapless survivors.

The facilities that the organisers of the camps could muster for sanitation, bathing and drinking water were painfully inadequate, bereft as they were of state support. The Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) fact-finding team in March found only one mobile toilet with four chambers for nearly 9,000 people in the Shah-e-Alam camp. A month later the numbers in the camp had swelled to a high of 12,000 but there were only 18 toilets. Even these became badly clogged as they were rarely cleaned, and emanated a nauseating stench and attracted swarms of flies. Often they were completely dysfunctional.

The summer temperatures were pitiless, and the mercury pushed to 45oC, sometimes higher. Life in the relief shelters became even harder - old people, children and women listlessly sought shade under the tattered shamianas or the few trees that dotted the graveyards and open grounds. The residents of the camps were even more threatened with the arrival of the monsoons. State authorities refused, despite repeated representations, court injunctions and even a delegation led by former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral to the Prime Minister, to build rain-proof shelters to protect the survivors from the ravages of the rains. Across the city of Ahmedabad, there are a number of massive disused buildings of long-closed cotton mills and the permission of courts could have been sought to provide them shelter in these buildings. The stubborn refusal of the State authorities to build or requisition adequate shelters suggests that they hoped that the onset of the monsoon would result in the forced closure of all camps and establish a mirage of normalcy in the run-up to the announcement of Assembly elections.

However, local organisations such as the Citizen's Initiative in Ahmedabad mustered donations of cash, materials and voluntary labour to erect rain-proof shelters in several camps. Blue plastic sheets stretched out on bamboo scaffolding afforded the most minimal protection to the residents of the camps. But as sheets of rain fell continuously in the early days of the monsoon (which subsequently failed), women miserably clutched their children around them and rainwater gathered in puddles and dirty, unruly streams in the low-lying graveyards and open grounds where the camps were located.

The camps gradually emptied as all except the most terrified or destitute residents left for their old damaged homes, or to live with relatives within or outside the State. Or, dozens of people crowded together, in small hired rooms in Muslim ghettoes. After the onset of the monsoon in late June, some 20,000 people remained in around 27 camps in Ahmedabad. Unmoved by their plight, the district administration pasted notices at several of these camps, demanding that they be disbanded and the residents dispersed or relocated. The State government even stopped the supply of food and occasional medical supplies. The notice from the District Collector added ominously that if people persisted with staying in the camps, the government would not be responsible if any 'aafat', or calamity, overcame them.

The Collector, when contacted, insisted that he only wanted to relocate the residents to the big camps, Shah-e-Alam and Dariyakan Ghummat, where facilities would continue to be extended. However, people refused to move there because they wanted to remain close to their old homes, which they were now trying to rebuild, or to find some kind of casual work. The Collector could not explain how he was going to provide shelter and facilities to more residents in the big camps when the government had provided absolutely no protection from rain and had offered only minimal facilities for sanitation and drinking water even to their original population.

The camp organisers increasingly found themselves under intense official pressure to close the camps. Starved of food supplies, some camps persisted for two months or more with donations raised by voluntary organisations. A small number of camps continue to operate, but are without food supplies. They are just primitive covered spaces that extend a bare semblance of shelter to internal refugees with nowhere to go. One by one, even the big camps, such as Dariyakan Ghummat and Shah-e-Alam, were closed. The camp organisers today face the continuing wrath of the hapless residents who were turned away from the camps at short notice. But they defend themselves with stories of diverse arm-twisting techniques resorted to by a doggedly hostile administration.

Matters have become worse with the State government's 'compensation' for the loss of lives, injuries and for homes, business establishments and livelihoods destroyed. 'Compensation' is a heartless, callous word. What in the world can compensate the violent, barbarous death or rape of loved ones; the destruction of one's home with all its dreams and memories; or the loss of work that gives one dignity and succour? Instead, one should perhaps talk more humbly of 'government assistance' to help the survivors to rebuild what they have lost.

In human-made and natural disasters of the past, the government has never been able to substitute for all the economic losses suffered by a family. But the grants and soft loans were designed to be sufficient, at least in theory, to enable the survivors to craft a new beginning and eventually restore themselves to their old situation. In Gujarat, there is even no such claim. Take shelters, for instance. The Prime Minister, in his sole encounter with the survivors of the carnage, in the Shah-e-Alam camp in Ahmedabad, announced an assistance of Rs.50,000 for every destroyed or damaged home. The government interpreted this assurance to define the ceiling for compensation for damaged housing (which, incidentally, is far lower than the Rs.90,000 ceiling for earthquake victims in Gujarat a year earlier), and set a limit of Rs.5,000. For all movable property in the house - clothes, gadgets, jewellery, money, utensils, everything that a poor or middle-class family has accumulated through years of industry and saving - the families were compensated at a flat rate of Rs.2,500.

In my own survey in the Vatwa Jehangir Nagar camp in Ahmedabad, I found that the compensation paid was drastically lower than the officially estimated damage to houses and no explanation was provided for this. Firozebhai Peerozi received Rs.3,000 against a damage assessment of Rs.90,000. Abdul Bhai was given the same amount for losses recorded at Rs.45,000. Asghar Bhai Abbasi received Rs.4,900 for a loss recorded at Rs.75,000. Mehboobbhai Ansari got Rs.21,750 to compensate losses recorded at Rs.2,41,600.

It would be impossible for any family to rebuild their homes with such paltry sums. Their crisis is aggravated because, in a decisive and cruel departure from the past, soft loans for housing or livelihoods are not being extended to the survivors. Apart from some niggardly grants, they have had no support from public institutions to reconstruct their homes.

The abdication is even greater in the matter of livelihoods. There are no government circulars to compensate for damage to business establishments, factory buildings, shops, machines or merchandise. Likewise, no compensation is available for losses to agricultural implements.

There is one government circular which says that small shopkeepers and those with self-owned earning assets such as hand-carts, sheds, cabins and vehicles which have suffered damage will be granted ex-gratia relief up to Rs.10,000. Another brutal departure from past policy is the decision to converge grants and soft loans under various government schemes and public institutions to assist people whose livelihoods are crippled by riots. The government order explicitly debars persons who have received assistance under this scheme from being eligible for any other government grant or loan.

In the Jehangir Nagar camp, 22-year-old Noor Bano clutches her infant son who was born in the camp. The camp is officially closed; the government stopped supplying rations two months ago and the once thriving common kitchen has wound up. But almost 800 people continue to live in the camp because they have nowhere to go. Just five days before the monsoon broke over Ahmedabad, volunteers from an autorickshaw union in Andhra Pradesh toiled round the clock with young men from the camp to build rain-proof shelters which provide them some protection. But food is scarce, and Noor Bano's husband Sirajuddin looks around for casual work when he does not do the volunteer's work of accompanying patients from the camp to the hospital. They owned a hand-cart, sold plastic toys and utensils, and lived as tenants in Nawapara Darbanagar. With Noor Bano, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, and with their two small sons, they fled to the safety of this camp when the violence broke out. Their hand-cart was destroyed and their home was burnt and looted; not a shred remains. They received a cheque for Rs.1,800 for the damage to their home but gave this to their landlord when he demanded it from them. An aid agency gave them a hand-cart, but without working capital they are trapped and continue to live in a camp that the government refuses to recognise.

Halima, who stays in the same camp, was abandoned by her husband 18 years ago. She used to work as a part-time domestic help, and also plied a hand-cart, selling vegetables. The cart was burnt, her employment was terminated and her house burnt. Against an official damage assessment of Rs.90,000, she was offered a cheque for Rs.3,000. She initially refused to accept it, but was advised that she should take what she was given. She has returned to her home. A voluntary organisation plastered her damaged walls with cement, but they are fragile and could fall any time. She scrubs the burnt tiles and there is no electricity and water supply. She languishes there during the day but at night returns to the security and comradeship of the camps.

HUMANE standards of relief and rehabilitation seemed light years away when I made one of the most painful journeys of my life, exactly six months after the massacre. It was a trek of less than a kilometre, in the bylanes of Naroda, witness to the most brutal bloodshed in the history of Ahmedabad.

With me were 'aman pathiks', or peace workers, young people who had volunteered to serve and heal in response to our call after the carnage. Following the forced closure of Shah-e-Alam camp a few days earlier, refugees had been coerced to return with their families to what remained of their homes in this settlement of dread. Some slept in a cramped madrassa, others with relatives. As we walked, they pointed to the remains of their homes. Tenement after tenement of charred houses, collapsed masonry, cracked walls, open skies, burnt heaps, all crowded with aching memories. They recreated for us the ghoulish events, the murders, burning, rape, the terror, the escape, and the ones who could not get away.

As we walked, our eyes repeatedly clouded and our shoulders stooped. This is not the country that we have loved and been nurtured by. We must reclaim it. Or one day it may be too late.

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