The crisis of the camps

Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST


CHIEF MINISTER Narendra Modi wants the people in the relief camps to go back home. That would prove his claim that things are back to normal in Gujarat. Almost 1.5 lakh people, who have been hounded out of their homes and live in miserable conditions in 104 relief camps in the State, too would like nothing better than to return home. But there is a hitch - they have no homes to go. And, their lives would be in danger if they leave the camps. More than a month after the Sangh Parivar began a targeted attack against Muslims in the State on February 27, Modi has done nothing to rein in his fellow Sangh members.

In fact, the refugees are at risk even inside a few relief camps in Ahmedabad. The Rajpur relief camp in Gomtipur, Ahmedabad, was attacked as recently as March 31. Three persons were injured when a mob threw stones and acid bulbs into the camp, which is housed in a school. "A mob came while we were eating lunch. They broke the tent where medical check-ups are done," said Rashidaben Ghulam Nabi, a refugee. "This is the second time they have attacked us in the relief camp. The first was around March 15, when the Ram temple construction was to start," she said. She alleged that certain BJP leaders paid Dalits to do that.

Rashidaben's few desperate attempts to sneak back to the charred ruins of her home in Parmanand Chawl, near the relief camp, proved dangerous. "They flashed knives and told us to leave," she said. However, government officials were ordered to convince the refugees to return to their homes. They were asked to reduce the numbers in the camps before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee visited the State. "Officials from the Collector's office had assured us that they would provide us security to go back home. But a day after we sent the applications for police escort, we were attacked again in the relief camp. There is no home to go back to either," said another refugee in the Rajpur camp.

But the government persists with its public relations drive. Violence rages on the streets and no alternative housing is offered to the refugees, and still a drive is on to get rid of the refugees and whitewash the truth. There have been reports of government officials telling victims that they would not get compensation until they returned home. The Ahmedabad Collector, however, denied that people were being told to go back home.

Even as the government wants the refugees to leave the camps, more and more people are seeking refuge and new relief camps are being set up every day as violence continues. Even empty houses are being burned.

In Ahmedabad alone, the number of camps rose, from 44 to 53 in the first week of April. "As violence continues, more people keep pouring in every day. With more than 10,000 people here, we have no room. But we cannot turn anyone away. Even the rations supplied by the government are not enough," says Munirbhai Sheikh, a volunteer at Ahmedabad's Shah Alam relief camp, the largest such camp in the State.

Conditions in the Shah Alam camp were pathetic until recently. There were no adequate medical facilities. With no transport and with a curfew on, two women delivered their babies in a graveyard and another inside a rickshaw. There were less than 20 toilets for 10,500 people. People put up with the scorching heat as they had not even a tent over their heads. But when the Prime Minister decided to visit the camp, the place was transformed. A day before the visit, government officials swarmed to the camp and worked overtime to clean it up, install more toilets and water tanks, put up tents, stock up supplies and distribute Rs.1,250 as immediate compensation for loss of belongings. That was the first time that such compensation was distributed. At the Dariya Khan Ghummat camp in Shahibaug, Ahmedabad, which Vajpayee was to visit, distribution of compensation began but was stalled midway when he decided to cancel his visit there.

At the Shah Alam camp, Vajpayee was the symbol of remorse. "It is a matter of great shame that people have become refugees in their own land, homeless in their own home. The way you have been made to live in relief camps is also a matter of great shame to us," he said. The Prime Minister's April 4 visit also marked the first time that the Chief Minister, or any other Minister in the State, had visited the camp. While an outraged Vajpayee expressed shame at the atrocities, refugees booed Modi, shouting: "He is the killer." Survivors of the worst massacres after Godhra, such as the one in Naroda Patia where 91 people were burnt alive, have sought shelter here. Ministers have been actively trying to empty refugees from relief camps rather than looking to their welfare. Instead of ensuring that rations reached the camps, Food and Civil Supplies Minister Bharat Barot had been shooting off letters to Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia asking him to close down three relief camps in his Daryapur-Kazipur constituency because his Hindu voters felt insecure with relief camps remaining close to their homes.

The Prime Minister made fiery speeches, but the State government has done almost nothing by way of relief and rehabilitation. Whatever little has been done is either because of voluntary workers or because Vajpayee pulled up Modi for his inaction. Collectors started supplying rations to relief camps only a week after the violence began. The government has not set up a single relief camp. They are all run by local Muslim communities and trusts. The BJP has set up "Hindu relief camps" for a handful of Hindus living in Muslim-dominated areas, who also fled when Muslims were attacked.

While the government is supplying minimal rations, groups such as the Citizens Initiative are providing other essentials such as clothes, blankets and soaps. Some citizens filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court to prevent the State government from evading its responsibility to provide basic facilities. Ironically, there have been times when the Collector's office called up voluntary organisations asking them to help supply grain to a particular camp that was not yet registered.

IN the villages, the camps are much worse off. Government help had not reached the 800-odd refugees in Hadgol village in Anand district for over a month. The camp organisers' application for registration was still being processed. "People of the local Muslim basti have been so generous, contributing food and putting us up in their homes for the past one month. The government has done nothing," said Munna Divan, one of the refugees who tried to organise relief.

On March 27 Modi was summoned to Delhi by a displeased Vajpayee, who told him to pull up his socks and put together a relief and rehabilitation plan. Soon after his return to Gujarat, Modi set up an all-party committee for relief, which would be headed by the Governor. The word 'rehabilitation' was conveniently left out of the government resolution (GR) announcing the committee's formation. It was only after some Opposition members refused to join unless the term 'rehabilitation' was included, that the Chief Minister agreed that it would be part of the package. The GR was yet to be amended.

The State government's compensation offer has also been criticised, since it constitutes considerably less than what was offered to the victims of the Kutch earthquake. Housing compensation for those affected by the riots has been fixed at a maximum of Rs.50,000, as compared to Rs.1.75 lakhs for the earthquake-affected people. Those seriously injured in the communal violence would be given Rs.50,000, while other injured people would be given Rs.25,000. In comparison, those who became paraplegics are given Rs.3 lakhs each in Kutch. However, compensation to the next of kin of those killed was increased from Rs.1 lakh to Rs.1.5 lakhs by Vajpayee; the Centre would contribute two-thirds of the amount.

Rehabilitation still seems a long way off as the violence continues. The government is still fumbling with basic relief. Besides food and clothes, space is another precious commodity. Around 10,000 people are cramped into the Shah Alam relief camp. Many sleep in the graveyard. The silence of the night is punctuated by screams of children, who wake up reliving the terror of the carnage they witnessed.

Hounded out of their homes and now with attempts being made to push them out of relief camps, the nightmare does not seem to end for the refugees of Gujarat's relief camps more than a month after it all began.

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