Dialogue January-March, 2011, Volume 12 No. 3
Deosri : Dilemma of the Internally Displaced People
An old village, Deosri must have been rich enough in history to merit being named after Sri or Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth in the Hindu pantheon. Comprising mainly the Nepali community, this village 10 kms off the Indo-Bhutan border area saw an influx of thousands of people who took refuge after fleeing the inner forest areas where ethnic clashes between the Bodos and the Santhals had broken out. They are located on the land of the Reserve Forests near the village and most of them have remained there ever since!
Never in the past had the two communities ever had a tension. Santhals are one of the ‘Adivasis,’ besides Oraon, Munda and other smaller communities who came to Assam in the past century and a half, ostensibly from the Chhota Nagpur areas, to toil in the tea gardens. Santhals in Assam are mainly located in the Bodo areas close to the Western part of Assam and one has never understood the reason behind the Bodo-Santhal clashes in 1996 and ‘98. The closest guess is that some of the Bodo militants were suspicious that they may ‘report’ their activities, as many poor Santhals also followed the landless Bodos in occupying some of the vast forest areas in the region.
Their descendants now make for more than a fourth of Assam’s population. The largeness of their population also acts as a dampener on their chances of getting a Scheduled Tribe status, which they otherwise enjoy not just in their parent states but also in Tripura and West Bengal. The Adivasis on the other hand feel wronged and have been demanding this status, but to no avail as the existing scheduled tribes in Assam rightly feel that they would lose their privileges in the limited education and job market once such a huge community as of the Adivasis also vies for the same posts. The State has apparently forwarded the case to the Centre asking for them to get the status, but the Registrar General of India in its own wisdom too has rejected their claim.
While it was easier for the displaced people from the Bodo community to resettle – not all have done that though – it was considerably more difficult for the Adivasis to go back to their lands, one of the reasons being the fact that many did not possess land documents to make a claim to the government to help them return, even though their names could be ascertained on the voter lists of their areas. Consequently, one can see mainly the Santhals in huge numbers in Deosri and surrounding areas, living in penury and in animal-like existence.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition Of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 recognises the ‘forest rights’ of Scheduled Tribes (STs) who have occupied forest lands before the 13th of December 2005, but it does not allow such a privilege to those not belonging to the Scheduled Tribes unless they can show the proof of bonafide residence for at least three generations or 75 years before the date.
Consequently, the stay of Santhals, just like any other non-ST communities in the forests is deemed illegal. The administration in various phases of its rehabilitation deals with such ‘internally displaced persons (IDPs)’ – a euphemism for internal refugees - paid off between ten and fifty thousand per family and wished away their existence! With one stroke, they converted the IDPs whose plight demands sympathy to a status of encroachers of the forest who need to be punished by law. The eviction drives every year against them, in which their huts are broken down or even burnt down by the forest department do nothing but increase their penury. For those who own land elsewhere, the administration has never provided assured safety to return to their homes; and for those who do not have authentic land documents, they have never indicated alternate land that may be purchased within the meagre rehabilitation package provided to them!
Help from the Voluntary and Humanitarian Agencies
Deosri is an example where the Voluntary and Humanitarian sector is also at its wits end. How does one help such impoverished and helpless communities? Agencies which ask about the Scheduled Tribes’ rights to stay in the forest in line with their occupation of the forest lands before the 13th December 2005 are publically ridiculed by the forest department for being anti-forest. To give free doles to the people could be done and was done until a few years after the clashes, but soon the relief dried up. Even the Government reduced its relief to only ten days worth of rice for the members who were registered in 1996 – there was no rice for those born after the clashes!
What the Internally Displaced People really need is assured livelihoods to satiate their hunger. But how do Voluntary Agencies surviving on projects create livelihoods for those who may be shifted out anytime! The meagre chances that they used to have of getting decent daily wages were across the Indo-Bhutan border some kilometres away, but the military operations in Bhutan that destroyed the ULFA and NDFB camps, also started strict travel restrictions across the border and destroyed the chances of any economic revival. Very soon what we could see was women shifting to prostitution and health and nutritional effects on the children.
Attitudes of Government Officials
As it is we have a history of having people turning arrogant and insensitive once they occupy government positions. This gets compounded when societies go through ethnic movements that try to address socio-economic problems. While ethnic movements may bring back a balance of power to a community, what they also tend to do is to steep an entire generation in parochialism. Members of the same generation go on to occupy posts in the government and the effects of these attitudes can be seen in their work.
Some years ago, when I was accompanying a senior functionary to plead with one of the highest State Officials for help for the Internally Displaced, I heard him tell the functionary I was accompanying in a conspiratorial tone, “At least this (name withheld) community is likely to get pleased only with ten thousand rupees, but look at the other one – they have the cheek of asking fifty thousand per household! They must be dreaming.” A quick calculation told me that the total cost in Lower Assam at the latter rate would not have cost more than 25 crore rupees – totally justifiable for the permanent rehabilitation of five thousand households and not much more than what the Government spent in one year to facelift a few circuit houses with marble floors and better amenities! This exemplifies the insensitivity of people at the highest level of the Government!
In another case, when the Chairperson and her team from the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights visited the Deosri area, she was shocked to see an open hut functioning as an Education Guarantee Centre for 200 children being taught by an Education volunteer at 1500 rupees a month. She then saw a group of children some distance away and found that none of them went to school. Further conversation with the accompanying District Deputy Commissioner went like this:
NCPCR: “DC Saab, why don’t you start some schools for this camp?”
DC: ‘Madam, this is no longer a camp; these are encroachers on forest land.’
“Still they are children who need education. Why don’t you do that?”
‘I know this community. Even if you give them schools, they will never go.’
“DC Saab, you put the schools, these NGO people will get the children to the school.”
‘Do the NGO people have magic wands to do what the government cannot do?’
And then, a few hours later, when she learnt that abject poverty and hunger of their family was pushing some women into prostitution, the DC was at his best attitude once again, ’Madam, don’t believe this. It is not the poverty. You do not know this community as much as I do. Women of this community go for the pleasure of sex. Which other woman will leave her children and go for prostitution!’ The NCPCR Chairperson retorted in disgust,” Only a man can say that!” and then wondered aloud, “How do you get to work in such an area where even DCs can say this?”
Government Schemes like PDS and MGNREGA in the area
Although the Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court in the Right to Food PIL wrote and asked the Government of Assam to register all IDPs as Antyodaya beneficiaries, even three years later, the Government has never bothered to reply to him, let alone acceeding to his suggestion. The voluntary agency I work with tried its best to get BPL status for the IDPs, and despite hurdles, they did get a letter accepting their status, but they are yet to get any benefit that needed to come with it, not even cheap rations!
In a region remote from any urban area and in a State that has hardly any industry, what wage rate can you expect when the supply of labour is far less than the number of people happily offering their labour? There were hardly any jobs to go around and consequently the IDPs would compete to get jobs, with a race to get the wages to the bottom. It was in this situation that the voluntary agency I work with welcomed the MGNREGA with glee. Very soon, we realised it wasn’t so easy. Firstly, the IDPs were told that the inmates could get work only in their parental villages, and returning to them was simply not possible. After some trying, we managed to get them registered for their Job Cards, but every time when they asked for money, they would only get the standard answer, “there is no scheme on which we can give you any labour.”
That was until the MGNREGA were found on the Web. People discovered that the VCDCs – equivalent of the Panchayats in Bodoland Territorial Council – had been booking a lot of labour against works shown in the area. When people got angry and publically demanded their job cards and Bank passbooks, they were shocked to see that fake entries had been made in their Job Cards and money had been deposited and withdrawn from their accounts without their knowledge! Of the 64 people whose records could be ascertained and triangulated, we found that 3,32,949 rupees had been deposited and withdrawn for 3,745 days of work that had never been seen by anybody in the area!
A public hearing called by the voluntary agency along with all the local youth organisations was attended by some of the senior government officials and all conceded that the verbal and documentary evidence produced by the forty odd men & women - who dared to defy the barriers put up by militants living in cease-fire camps - was convincing and damning for the officials. Some of the same militants allegedly also burnt up one of the vehicles belonging to a colleague while returning from the Public Hearing. A few days later, replying to SOS messages when rumours were doing the rounds that the local NGO field office may be burnt, senior police officials gave me ‘friendly advice’ that we had ‘made too many enemies and should seek their help to learn how to work.’ Three months later, no reparative action has been taken despite an inquiry and points to a deep nexus between militant elements, the government functionaries and even the police.
What then can one expect for the IDPs in Assam? A Joint Commission of Inquiry to look into the Right to Food violations of IDPs in Lower Assam that was ordered by the Commissioners appointed by the Supreme Court in the Right to Food PIL on 8th March 2010 is yet to be convened almost a year later for the want of the three government officers to be notified by the Government of Assam.
Poor governance that results in socio-economic deprivation of various communities unfortunately gets heard only through the voices of organisations entirely developed on ethnic lines in the northeast. Such protests have always neglected the core issues of governance and corruption and levelled charges of bias against the ruling party dominated by the majority community, thus increasing and worsening the fault lines further. The ethnic bias of officers inherent in a bureaucracy and the rule of parties dominated by members of one community in a system of democracy that allows a dictatorship of the majority worsen the corruption and poor governance.
Meanwhile, the impoverished people who have been internally displaced live in hunger, squalor and darkness. They meet with disease and death with unfailing regularity. It is here that I fail to answer their simple question every time I meet them, ‘Does India have two sets of laws – one for the majority and the powerful and the other for everyone else? How can we convince our children that they are also equal citizens of a free country?