A cluster of unfinished houses stands in two rows in a small clearing in Rajgadh, in Gujarat’s Panchmahal District. Two goats rest on a charpoy outside a house, and a group of children playing a game with tamarind seeds chase away a black hen that wanders too near, incessantly pecking away at the ground.
Eleven Muslim families, displaced from their hometowns in other parts of Panchmahal by the Gujarat riots of 2002, now call these two-room, unpainted structures home. Inside are a few mats and pillows on the floor, as well as some pots and pans, neatly arranged on makeshift shelves in makeshift kitchens. There is no electricity, no plaster on the walls and no bathroom. When nature calls, the families visit the shrubs behind their homes, with the women in particular seeking the darkness of the night or early dawn. Amidst these very shrubs are also reminders of other houses that were to be constructed here: half-finished brick walls, which rise up as if in the hope of finding a roof to hold them together.
The description ‘relief colony’ hangs anachron-istically over the Rajgadh dwellings. There were to be about 40 families here, comprising people who were either hounded out of their homes or fled on their own due to a fear of pogroms. But, as 30-year-old Hasinabibi Makrani explains, the non-government agency that started the construction of these houses had to stop its work midway due to police and political intervention. The first few families had already moved into the unfinished houses when police officers suddenly turned up to chase away workers at the site. The agency, the residents believe, had not secured the requisite paperwork before starting construction. It is arguable whether a state that displayed such insensitivity towards its Muslim population would have even considered such a request. But the ‘illegal’ tag has proved sufficient for the police and other arms of the state to deny basic civic conveniences to the residents of this ‘relief’ colony.
Fearing for their safety, and unable to return to their hometowns due to threats from Hindu neighbours, the 11 families have remained in Rajgadh, fashioning lamps out of discarded bottles, and sleeping outside every night to escape the oppressive airlessness of their homes. Hasinabibi’s biggest worry is centred on her son, who goes to a school five kilometres away. “He is in the tenth standard this year,” she says. “How can he study without lights at night?”
Hasinabibi used to run a bangle shop in Navakuva, in Panchmahal, where she lived with her children and husband, who ran a garage. During the riots, their house was burnt down, and the family was forced to stay with relatives before moving to the Rajgadh colony. Now, Hasinabibi has no means of livelihood; her husband works in a garage in Baroda, earning about INR 50 every day, on which he, his wife and six children must survive. Her neighbour, Hussainbhai Zafibhai, moved to the colony from a relief camp, after his house in Sarasva, also in Panchmahal, was burnt down by rioters. “We used to own farms. Here I do any work that comes my way,” he says. He makes about INR 1500 every month, with which he has to support his parents, wife and two children.
The stories from Rajgadh are echoed across the 80-odd relief colonies spread across Gujarat, which house well over 4000 families. An Oxfam-supported survey in October 2006 found that almost no public infrastructure had been provided in these colonies. Little has changed since then. In 65 percent of these settlements, residents are forced to get their drinking water from private sources; only two colonies have government schools; and just four colonies have Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres, known as anganwadis. For a population that is so desperately out of work, only three colonies have ration shops for subsidised food.
Perhaps one reason for this negligence is that none of these colonies was established by the state government. In fact, when the relief-colony residents were issued voter-identification cards this past June, following a directive from the National Human Rights Commission, it was practically the first official acknowledgement of their existence. Much work, however, remains to be done. Typically, riot victims have received little or no compensation. (Though, in late September, the Centre did announce INR 705 million in additional compensation.) Moreover, their existence continues to be a precarious battle for survival in a society that appears to have little compunction about excluding and ignoring them.
In his tiny house, where a tall, blue water container is the most prominent fixture, Dedki Mehboob Yusuf sifts through stacks of paper detailing the upturned lives of the inhabitants of Aman Park Society, a relief colony in Chikodhra, Godhra, where he also lives. Yusuf’s family used to own three shops in Ranipura, from where he and his family barely managed to escape during the riots. Today, he scrapes together a living by working two jobs: teaching at a private school while doubling as a social activist. Yusuf has been assiduously shooting off letters to the local administration about the lack of water and electricity in his colony. The water situation is so bad here that a resident who works as a jeep driver occasionally brings his vehicle to the colony, at which time people pile the truck high with clothes, and head off to a pond a few kilometres away to do a week’s worth of washing (see pic).
The story remains much the same in relief colonies across Gujarat. In Halol, Iqbal Makrana, the father of two children, works as a casual labourer. He talks about how the families living in the 150-odd houses in the colony have to depend on one hand-pump for water, which is half a kilometre away. Mehboob Shaikh, who used to sell coconuts at the foot of the famed Kali temple at Pavagadh before the riots, and today works as a truck driver, adds that there is not even a primary health centre in the vicinity.
Perhaps most ironic about Gujarat’s relief colonies is the fact that residents do not even hold ownership papers for their houses, though these buildings were constructed by Muslim trusts and a few non-government organisations. This means that they can be evicted at any time. Many even had to pay significant amounts for these tiny structures – often INR 25,000-40,000. In Baroda’s Noorani Mohalla, where 45 displaced families live, 42-year-old Sarfaraf Habibullah Khan says that residents were forced to pay more than INR 45,000 each. “But the work quality is poor,” he complains. “There’s water leakage, there’s no plastering. And we paid the amount by borrowing money from relatives.” Even so, the residents have yet to be given allotment letters for their houses. And as Mohammad Hanif, a maulana in Bachesar colony in Shehera, where 64 families live without holding any land document, notes, “You can’t apply for a loan without a property deed.”
After visits made in October 2006, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) listed many of the challenges faced by colony residents in a report submitted to the central government. Among other findings, the report said that the residents were being denied the most basic of civic amenities, such as potable water, sanitary facilities, schools, primary health centres and approach roads. The report added that the state government had not provided any amenity or facility in the colonies, nor had Gandhinagar officials attempted to facilitate the residents’ return to their original homes.
The residents are “frustrated” by their inability to earn their own livelihoods, said the NCM report. Many of them had been self-employed traders, artisans or industrialists before the riots, but now customers are “unwilling to use their services”. An examination of the homes of residents showed they were living in “abject poverty”, with little more than bedding and kitchen utensils. The report also noted the atmosphere of insecurity and hostility that residents face, including from state agencies, particularly the police.
In June, a Supreme Court-appointed committee tasked with monitoring national food-security schemes noted that only 725 out of the 4545 internally displaced families in Gujarat had been recognised as living below the poverty line, though the economic situations of all were dire. The Right to Food Commissioner, N C Saxena, told the court, based on a survey by his colleagues, that only five of the 81 colonies had government or government-recognised schools, of which only four served midday meals to children. The committee’s recommendations included setting up primary schools (with midday meals), ICDS anganwadis and ration shops in all colonies, wherever they are not available within a three-kilometre radius.
The National Commission for Minorities asked Gujarat Chief Secretary Sudhir Mankad to provide an explanation for the commission’s findings of abysmal conditions in relief colonies. In its response in August, the Gandhinagar government for the first time admitted that 3660 riot-displaced families were still living in 69 temporary colonies. Gagan Sethi, managing trustee of the Ahmedabad-based Jan Vikas and Centre for Social Justice, says the government’s admission is in itself a significant step. For five years, the state government has consistently denied, even to the Supreme Court, that anyone had been displaced by the riots. The official acknowledgement could now ensure that the colony residents, who have already been issued voter ID cards, finally have a platform from which to claim their rights. Sethi, whose organisation has been actively working for the rights of those displaced by the riots, points out that, even in colonies where the use of land for residential purposes is yet to be legalised, voter ID cards can serve as proof of residence.
After five years, and probably due to insistent complaints and challenges, some positive changes are finally starting to be seen in the displacement camps. The state government in Gandhinagar has at long last started issuing Below Poverty Line and Antyodaya ration cards. While these are crucial steps, Jan Vikas’s Sethi warns, “What they’re not doing is improving infrastructure in the relief colonies.” But in a dramatic turnaround of sorts, the Gujarat government, which had previously returned INR 191 million that it had received from the Centre as relief-work funding – claiming that rehabilitation was already complete – is reportedly asking New Delhi for money for special schemes, specifically to improve infrastructure in the relief colonies.
Meanwhile, the colony residents hope for the best, but say they will believe the new promises when they see the infrastructure and services actually arrive. In Rajgadh, a wick burning in a small bottle in a smoky room emits a shaky flame, on which Hasinabibi’s son still relies to read his textbooks. As he traces the words, she hopes that eventually he will have a life with lights, toilets, a future to look forward to, and the respect of the state.
~ Deepa A is a journalist based in Delhi. This report was made possible by the Sanskriti-Prabha Dutt Fellowship in Journalism, 2006