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In Gujarat's ghettos

By Deepa A

Around 250,000 people were estimated to have been displaced by the Gujarat riots of 2002. Six years later, 4,500 families are still living in 81 relief colonies. They know they cannot return to the villages where they had homes, farms or shops. They are struggling to survive in areas often lacking even basic amenities. There is at least a framework for those displaced by development projects. There is no policy and no framework of entitlements for those displaced by sectarian or communal violence

The exteriors of the one-room tenements in Rahimabad Society in Devgarh Baria, in Gujarat's Dahod district, are painted pink, a bright colour that belies the darkness inside the houses. Around 75 families live in these tiny structures, without even basic facilities like sanitation, access roads and water supply. Livelihoods are hard to come by here. There are no good schools or hospitals nearby. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the 475-odd inhabitants of the society, who have been living here for the past six years, don't call it their home. Perhaps it's also because their roots lie elsewhere, in a village where they had farms or shops, where their children went to school, and where their lives followed trajectories they had chosen for themselves.

Such luxuries are noticeably absent in the unpaved paths in and around Rahimabad Society, which houses survivors of the horrific communal violence that Gujarat witnessed in 2002. According to Gujarat government estimates, which activists allege are on the conservative side, over 1,000 people -- most of them belonging to the Muslim community -- were killed during the riots. A report published by the Concerned Citizens Tribunal in 2002 estimated that the violence also resulted in the displacement of around 250,000 people. Over 4,500 families are still living in what are called 'relief colonies', much like Rahimabad Society, unable to return to their homes, from which they were hounded out for no reason except that they were Muslims.

Even a casual discussion with the residents of Rahimabad Society is enough to understand why going back to their homes is not an option they can consider. They hail from Randhikpur village, which, today, is known as the place where a pregnant Bilkis Bano was gangraped and 14 members of her family killed by a mob, in 2002.

Almost everyone in Rahimabad Society has lost a loved one in the violence. Siraj Nana Patel, who tries to make a living in Devgarh Baria by working as a casual labourer, says his son, his brother and his nephew were killed in the riots. He remembers the gruesome event as if it had happened yesterday. "A mob came in the morning and attacked our house. They hit me with a sword. I was bleeding and I fainted and they thought I was dead," Patel says, taking off his shirt to show the scars on his chest. His surviving relatives took him to hospital, from where they went to a relief camp in Godhra, and ultimately to Rahimabad. He lives here with his disabled daughter and wife, and speaks of a daily struggle to eke out a living. Most days he just sits at home as work is hard to find.

Like his neighbours in Rahimabad, Patel cannot imagine going back to his home, where people he knew and who lived in the same village were part of the mob that attacked him. He says he went to the police several times but in a story that's repeated across relief colonies, the cops did not even bother to register a complaint. As their attackers roam free, the victims remain confined to ghettos where they live in an atmosphere laced with insecurity and fear.

Rahimabad Society is just one of the estimated 81 relief colonies in Gujarat that house people who have been internally displaced by the 2002 riots. There have been countless reports on their plight but despite the current United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre announcing new compensation packages for the survivors, words have not translated into action at the ground level.

The displaced continue to live a life centred on mere survival. Most don't have documents certifying possession of their houses, which were built by Muslim trusts, occasionally with the support of non-government organisations. There has been no help from the Gujarat government, which stands accused of complicity in the violence of 2002. None of the colonies have been provided with even basic amenities. Ration cards and voter ID cards were issued as recently as last year, that too because of the tireless work of a few non-government organisations and at the insistence of the Election Commission.

Assembly elections were held in Gujarat in December 2007, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, was elected to power for the third consecutive time. The very same government had, for over five years, denied that people had been displaced by the riots. Acknowledgement came only in August 2007, when, responding to an explanation demanded by the National Commission for Minorities regarding steps taken to rehabilitate the displaced, the government stated that people were still living in relief colonies. Such was the level of despair that the victims had been plunged into, that activists counted the government's statement as a minor victory.

Across Gujarat, life in the relief colonies follows a similar depressing pattern. In Godhra, in the Panchmahals district, Aman Park houses those who managed to escape from neighbouring villages and towns after being attacked by mobs during the riots. Some of the men in this colony were forced to take up jobs in dolomite factories and have ended up with silicosis. They speak of once owning farms or small businesses in their hometowns. Today they have been reduced to penury and have to wait hours at government offices begging for electricity and water connections that they still do not have.

In Ahmedabad, as elsewhere across Gujarat, the relief colonies lie on the outskirts of the city, in areas without roads and schools and hospitals. To earn a livelihood, people have to travel long distances; the commuting cost itself eats into their meagre earnings. In the rains, the water reaches their doorsteps. At Faisal Park in Vatva, an industrial area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, residents complain that the water contains chemicals from nearby factories. There's no drainage facility to speak of here, as in any relief colony in Gujarat.

A survey conducted in October 2006, supported by Oxfam and implemented by Aman Biradari, Lawyers Collective and Yusuf Meheralli Centre, confirms that there are hardly any public conveniences in the relief colonies. In 65% of the colonies, residents get drinking water from private sources. In colonies such as Rahimabad Society and a nameless one in Rajgadh, Panchmahals district, the handpump is located almost two kilometres away from the houses. It's the women who usually trek the distance to get water for their homes. The survey notes that only two colonies have government schools; four colonies have Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) anganwadis; just three have ration shops.

The economic condition of the displaced is dire, says a committee appointed by the Supreme Court in a case pertaining to central government-sponsored food security schemes. In its report presented to the apex court in June 2007, the panel states that despite the visible poverty, only 725 of the 4,545 internally displaced families had been recognised as living below the poverty line (BPL). As a report of the National Commission for Minorities, dated October 2006, says, the residents are unable to support themselves as they used to before the riots. "Before the violence, many of these people were small self-employed traders, artisans or industrialists. The violence put an end to their means of livelihood since their old clients were unwilling to use their services," says the report. It adds that though residents are living in abject poverty, many have been issued above the poverty line (APL) cards instead of BPL cards.

In December 2006, a delegation of Members of Parliament from the Left parties and Congress submitted a report to the Centre on conditions in the relief colonies. The report highlights an important point: every attempt is being made by those who intimidate the Muslim community to take possession of their (the Muslims') property. In Naroda Patia, Ahmedabad, the site of one of the worst massacres of the riots, only 15 of the 80 families living there have returned, says the report. "Leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have taken possession of their land and built multi-storeyed buildings," it adds.

The availability of substantial documented evidence about the internally displaced in Gujarat, however, has not prompted the government into action, notes an Amnesty International report released in 2007 on riot victims. The question of compensation remains a grey area in Gujarat. The state government returned Rs 19 crore sent by the Centre for riot victims, claiming that it had completed all its rehabilitation work. Yet in almost all the relief colonies, residents complain of receiving inadequate or no compensation. In September 2007, the Centre announced an additional package of Rs 70.66 crore for the riot victims. However, as activists noted during a similar pronouncement of additional compensation by the Centre in March 2007, such packages ignore the rights of the displaced and neglect aspects related to their rehabilitation.

Forgotten stories

Taking note of the appalling conditions in relief colonies, the National Commission for Minorities, in its report, recommends that the state and central governments prepare a special economic package for those displaced, with a focus on livelihood issues. The report also highlights how India does not have a national policy in place for those forced to move because of violence. "Populations displaced due to sectarian, ethnic, or communal violence should not be left to suffer for years together due to the lack of a policy and the absence of a justifiable framework of entitlements. When displacement takes place under conditions of fear and under constant direct threat of violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, the trauma and conditions under which survivors face the future is considerably worsened. Further, when the threat of violence is perceived to be continuing, the protection of people's constitutional rights can only be sought through a national policy which clearly lays out a non-negotiable framework of entitlements," the report says. The commission suggests that such a policy should include provisions for immediate compensation and rehabilitation; facilitate the displaced's right to return home, if the environment is conducive; and establish timeframes for implementing rehabilitation plans as well as include grievance redressal and monitoring mechanisms. The 2007 Amnesty International report, quoting the Commission for Minorities, notes that such a specific policy for dealing with those internally displaced by the riots is important because the criminal justice system in Gujarat "appears not to be working and discrimination and exclusion persist".

Gagan Sethi, an Ahmedabad-based activist who has been fighting for the rights of those internally displaced by the communal violence of 2002, points out that states have a framework for those displaced by development projects, but not so in the case of those displaced by ethnic violence. Internationally, nations are expected to follow the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement presented to the United Nations in 1998. Though it's not a legally binding document like a treaty, the 30 Guiding Principles do have international acceptance and identify the rights of the displaced. They recognise internally displaced persons as those "who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internally recognised State border". Among other things, the principles state that the authorities must provide protection and humanitarian assistance to the displaced, and, regardless of the circumstances, provide essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, essential medical services and sanitation.

Sethi, who's also the managing trustee of Jan Vikas and the Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad, notes how these principles have been ignored in Gujarat. The displaced have been living in tenements for six years without holding any documents to the one-room shacks they live in. Some of them have paid money, amounting to Rs 45,000, as in Baroda's Noorani Mohalla, for the houses. Yet, they do not have papers for them.

Almost all the relief colonies were built on land owned by Muslims, when the state government arbitrarily shut down relief camps that housed riot victims and they had nowhere else to go. Some of these plots were classified as agricultural land, but construction was taken up here because of the difficult circumstances. Though none are encroachments, the state government still has to approve usage of the land for residential purposes. "The paperwork is pending and it's used as a ploy to classify the colonies as illegitimate," says Sethi. The same tag is used to deny basic facilities such as water, sanitation and electricity to these colonies, though, as internationally accepted principles note, the relief colonies should have been constructed by the state government in the first place. Not only did the state not construct even a single house, but, over the past six years, it has done nothing to create basic infrastructure in the relief colonies.

Third time unlucky?

With the return of Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister for the third time, in the recent state elections, even the most optimistic of activists working with riot victims in Gujarat appear concerned. Sethi says that the exclusion of Muslims continues in Gujarat, with there being a "greater design to reduce the presence of Muslims to a few villages in each taluka and free the rest of the villages from Muslims". Hanif Lakdawala, director of the non-government organisation Sanchetna, which works in the areas of health and education, adds that subtle discrimination and social ostracism against Muslims continue in Gujarati society, pushing Muslims into ghettos. He warns that this will only reinforce the alienation the community already feels.

Ghanshyam Shah, a social scientist who has studied riots and socio-political trends in Gujarat extensively, feels that Muslims seem to have reconciled to the fact that there's nothing that they can expect from the government. Even if the Gujarat government were to offer protection to those displaced, people might not return home because of fear and insecurity, he says. For Muslims to feel safe, he explains, "it requires a different kind of conviction," a strong political will that's absent both in the current government and its opposition party, the Congress. Shah says that Muslims have therefore developed their own coping mechanisms, and today construct their own schools and hospitals instead of relying on the government.

Shakeel Ahmed, administrator of the State Islamic Relief Committee's legal help and guidance cell, concurs that the situation is unlikely to change. "It's therefore important for the Muslim community to re-organise itself and work together," he points out. Ahmed is also secretary of the Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity (Gujarat). "We need to work together to improve education levels. Also, there is a percentage of the Gujarati population that's non-communal and we should build bridges with them."

Achyut Yagnik, founder-secretary of the NGO Setu: Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, and co-author of the book The Shaping of Modern Gujarat points out that if one were to go by the United Nations' principles on displacement, the central government would have to be held equally responsible for the plight of Gujarat's internally displaced. "The UN is not going to ask the Gujarat government, it's going to ask the Government of India about the people," says Yagnik.

The Manmohan Singh-led UPA government stirred into action only in 2007, when Gujarat was set to go to the polls. Yagnik cities just one example: the residents of Juhapura in Ahmedabad, considered to be one of the largest Muslim ghettos in India with a population of 250,000 people, have been demanding a bank for the past three years without any response from either the Centre or the state government.

Little wonder then that when the Centre announces a compensation package, people see it as a case of too little, too late. For people displaced by the riots, living in houses they cannot call their own, an announcement is just that: a statement someone makes with an eye on the votes, only to be forgotten a few days later.

(Deepa A is a journalist based in New Delhi. She is presently working on the impact of communal violence on the education of riot-affected Muslim children, with particular reference to Gujarat. This article is based on a study funded by the Sanskriti-Prabha Dutt Fellowship in Journalism, 2006)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008