Thursday, March 19, 2009

Government of Assam to Buy Land to Rehabilitate 12000 Families

Government of Assam has decided to buy around 4,000 bighas (around 650 hectares) of land across the state to rehabilitate 12,000 families who have been living in relief camps in Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar districts since becoming displaced in 1996 or 1998. Over 48,000 families were forced to flee their homes and take shelter in camps following a series of ethnic clashes between Bodo and Adivasi tribespeople in the two districts. The move became necessary after earlier attempts to rehouse the displaced were blocked by strong objections from local groups and the lack of suitable government land. This led to government plans to buy land across the state from private parties to resettle the IDPs.

For details please click on the link

UN Rapporteur Criticises Indian Record on Displaced Groups

The UN’s Human Rights Council has criticised the government of India for denying justice to victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and reported that, with investigations in cases of communal violence delayed and partisan, “the miserable plight of those internally displaced from their homes continues.” The report by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Asma Jahangir, which follows a fact-finding mission to India in 2008, notes increasing ghettoisation and isolation of Muslims in certain areas of Gujarat.

In addition, the report refers to Kashmiri Pandits who had to flee the Kashmir Valley in the 1990s as a result of communal violence, and many of whom remain displaced. It also highlights the widespread violence in Orissa state in 2007 and 2008 which targeted Christians in Dalit and tribal communities and led to around 20,000 people moving to relief camps and more than 40,000 hiding in forests. The Special Rapporteur was profoundly alarmed at the humanitarian situation in Orissa’s relief camps where access to food, safe drinking water, medical care and adequate clothing were reportedly lacking.

For details please click on the link

In the Char Lands, People without Clean Water

Aditi Bhaduri

I wonder what is going through Nirmala Bibi's mind as she looks on at the tranquil River Padma. After a few moments, she says, "Bodo ashanti te acchi, ma (There is no peace). I have twice lost my home to this river; the river can be so cruel, it gives life and it takes life just as easily."

Nirmala Bibi is only too aware of the cruelties a mighty life-giving river is capable of inflicting. Around 50, she is now settled at Moushmari village, which has a population of 5,000. The village is located on Nirmalchar, a riverine island located on the outskirts of Murshidabad in West Bengal. The island was formed in 1980 when the River Padma - as the Ganges is known in the region - changed course, which is a frequent occurrence. Due to heavy siltation, the river that forms the natural boundary between India and Bangladesh, often changes course.

When the dry riverbeds that form the islands disappear because of erosion, thousands of people lose their homes. Incidentally, this region is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. According to the 2001 Census, there are around 12,000 people inhabiting Nirmalchar, currently spread over an area of five-six kilometres north to south; and 10-12 kilometres east to west.

Akhrigang is the nearest town on the mainland. It is around five kilometres away, and is separated by a shallow drain formed when a branch of the river suddenly started making inroads. People have to cross this to reach the mainland, which is extremely tough during the monsoon when it gets totally submerged.

Besides living under the constant fear of losing their homes, the inhabitants of Nirmalchar have to fight a host of other problems. The villages here, around 11 in number, have no electricity. Water, too, is the cause for nightmares: in the summer women have to travel a distance and stand in long queues to fetch water; in the monsoon, the water comes into their homes and stagnates, causing many health problems, especially for the women. Sanitation facilities - drains, toilets, taps and groundwater sources - are non-existent. "On the one hand, there is an excess of water, the cause of so much of our sorrow and unhappiness. On the other, we suffer from the lack of it," laments Nirmala Bibi.

Manjura Bibi, 34, who is also from Moushmari, faces similar difficulties. Manjura's husband works as a daily wager in Kolkata and although she misses him, she says she feels safe as she has three sons. Two of her husband's brothers and their families also live nearby. They all share a common toilet, located about 500 metres from their house. It is simply a hole dug in the ground, enclosed by a half-broken thatched wall. Manjura and the other women of her extended family wake up before dawn and attend to nature's call. But as there is no water in their toilet, they have to carry in small pots to wash themselves. Periodically they cover up the toilet hole with sand and soil.

The source of the water they use lies 700 metres away on the other side of her hut. There is a shallow hand pump there and Manjura fetches water from the pump and stores it for drinking, bathing and cleaning. When she has to do the laundry, she takes the clothes and washes them at the tubewell.

It's a similar story for Mariam Khatun, 26, and her family of seven. She too fetches precious water from one of the shallow pumps in the village and stores it for drinking and washing. The toilet her family uses is also just a hole. This, in fact, is how people in most villages on the 'char' (riverine island) live. The 11th Five Year Plan has set 2012 as the year by which universal sanitation coverage in the country would be achieved by building over 70 million household toilets in rural areas. But for the people here, this would appear a cruel dream.

Not surprisingly, in such unsanitary conditions, infections and diseases are rampant. According to community health worker Shampa Mondol, the lack of hygiene is the greatest cause for disease in Moushmari. "People do not take regular baths. Women frequently complain of pain in the abdomen and uterus, urinary tract infections, herpes, and general itching and sores," she reveals. Mondol complains that she has a tough time explaining to the women the importance of keeping themselves clean. But, asks Mariam, how can one take regular baths when water has to be ferried from faraway pumps after standing in long queues? It is impossible to keep the toilets clean. Ablutions before prayers are enough to keep one clean, she argues.

The summer months are particularly bad. While in the cooler months, the water level is at 50 feet below the ground, by April it would have descended to 80 feet. When this happens the queues at pumps only grow longer and the job of pumping the water out becomes more arduous. Manjura says she often has chest pain during summer because she has to put in so much effort to draw the water out and it leaves her gasping for breath.

During the monsoon, the scenario is quite the opposite. "The hand pumps are submerged and water comes right into our homes and stays there for days, as there is no drainage," says Nirmala. And it is this muddy water that is used for household needs. Although Mondol says halogen tablets are distributed during the season, deaths due to diarrhoea are not uncommon, as a proper healthcare system on the 'char' is non-existent. Moushmari has no chemist and the nearest health centre is four kilometres away in Munshurpur village, at the other end of the island. The village has seen several deaths of under-fives due to diarrhoea because the children couldn't get treatment in time. Although there are eight government Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) centres on the 'char', not one of them is operational. Further, the villagers say no health worker comes during the floods.

Women are especially vulnerable during the monsoon. During menstruation, they use cloth that they wash and reuse. When the cloth doesn't dry in the rains, many end up using the damp material, which in turn aggravates problems like urinary tract infections.

Despite these serious problems faced by the people of Nirmachar, no help has come their way, either from the government or the voluntary sector, with the money allocated for development remaining unutilised. There are no health centres and Mondol is the only Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) in the area despite government rules mandating three ANMs. That is why the residents often feel abandoned. Swadesh Majumdar, Block Development Officer, cites the shortage of trained medical staff as the reason for the lack of facilities. But Nirmala Bibi speaks for many when she says, "We are cursed to be born on this land."

—(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

“Cursed to Survive”

Francis Adaikalam
[Teaches at the Department of Social Work, Loyola College, Chennai]

The article by Aditi Bhaduri in Kashimiri Times clearly shows daily the lives of people who brave their effort to face nature. Specifically it brings into forefront the challenges women face in managing their everyday life when they are forced to relocate due to nature’s fury.

It details out a place called Nirmalchar, Murshidabad in West Bengal which has 12,000 people according to 2001 Census. This riverine island is formed due to flooding in the river and it spreads over an area of five-six kilometres north. The area is quite densely populated lacks all basic amenities like evicted people in urban spaces.

The writer depicts how women get the burden in managing families. Story of Nirmala Bibi’s shows the ever ending fear psychosis people put up with on being evicted. Millions in urban space increasingly feel such constant fear too. One can draw parallel with the evicted people in urban space- for want of beautification of cities- who have to fight a host of problems in their new settlement colonies as the inhabitants of Nirmalchar due to water. Issues like water and sanitation are pertinent to both the spaces and the only respite in Nirmalchar is that one can witness plenty of water yet non usable.

An Investment in Peace

Aditi Bhaduri
[Currently working as a freelance journalist based in Kolkata]

Aditi Bhaduri re-examines the significance of dialogue and community participation through personal narratives of women of the conflict ridden Kashmir valley. She unravels the personal trauma through the reading of the film “Athwas: a Journey”. It is a 30-minute documentary in English, Urdu, Hindi and Kashmiri, with English subtitles, produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). The article about the film has been reproduced from The Hindu, Magazine 1 March 2009.

Rebuilding Relationships: Highlighting what was once a Common History and Heritage

For those who know her, Ashima Kaul is an avowed secularist, committed to non-violence and communal harmony. She is simultaneously acknowledging and proud of her Hindu heritage as she is of her Kashmiri identity. “I feel more comfortable with Kashmiri Muslims than with non-Kashmiri Hindus,” she says candidly.

Yet when in the winter of 1996 Kaul, now a resident of Delhi, made that long journey back to her native Baramullah, she found relationships frozen. What greeted her were deafening silences — of gutted and abandoned Kashmiri Hindu houses and Muslim graveyards where tombstones jostled with each other for space. Kaul’s intense pain set her off on a path, different from those of political rhetoric and militarised spaces.

A Personal Battle

In the memorable winter of 2008, as more and more Kashmiri women battled it out in the political space, contesting elections and casting their ballot, another Kashmiri woman has launched her own battle — for dialogue and rebuilding relationships. Kaul has just captured on film the turbulent and moving journey of Athwas — an initiative of Kashmiri women. In 2000, “Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace”, a Delhi-based initiative of the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, brought together a few Kashmiri women from diverse backgrounds who had experienced conflict in different ways. The idea was to enable them to listen to each other.

The rationale — for women the personal inevitably blurs into the political and it is the feminist principles of compassion and healing, of reaching out to the other that ultimately triumph. The group called itself “Athwaas” meaning ‘handshake’ in Kashmiri. The core group of Athwaas later travelled to different parts of the Valley and also to the camps of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu, listening to the stories of pain, suffering and, also, of resilience.

“Athwas: a Journey” is a 30-minute documentary in English, Urdu, Hindi and Kashmiri, with English subtitles, produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). It does not attempt to explore the roots of either the militancy that erupted in the Kashmir valley or the state reprisals that followed. It apportions blame to no one. It simply deals with and tries to heal the trauma that haunts the inhabitants of every community living in the valley. A gendered narrative of the collective trauma of Kashmir’s people, it highlights the fact that there remains a constituency for peace. It uses the only methodology that works: dialogue. Interviews with women of different faiths and communities, from different walks of life, lawyers, social workers, students, teachers and housewives build up the many personal histories that comprise the complicated issue of Kashmir and its multiple realities.

No One View

The film steers clear of simplistic reductionisms like innocent Kashmiris vs. iron-fisted state or that of Kashmiri terrorists vs. Mother India. All are given space and no one view is privileged over the other. The camera highlights the changed silhouette of Srinagar where police checkpoints and barbed wire have been integrated into the landscape.

But Kaul does not stop there. The camera zooms in on narrow filthy alleyways and claustrophobic one-roomed tenements where adults flee away from the lens of the camera — ashamed of the reality of their current lives.

New Geography

A new kind of geography came up on the outskirts of Jammu too in the wake of the armed insurgency in Kashmir and Kaul captures on film the “migrant camps” that sprouted overnight to accommodate fleeing Kashmiri Hindus from the valley. Purkhoo, Mutthi, Mishriwalla still tragically remains unknown and unheard of words for a majority of Indians and, of course, for the world at large. Yet they accommodate camps where live, what till today remains India’s largest ethnically cleansed population, the Kashmiri Hindus. The coming new year will see them enter their 20th year in exile without any signs of repatriation to Kashmir in sight.

“Athwaas: A Journey” tries to highlight what was once a shared space, a common history and heritage. The haunting strains of the azaan blend in with the joyful chiming of bells from the Shankaracharya temple. The voice of Mir Munir, a Muslim poet and singer singing the vaks of Lalla Ded, a Shaivite mystic who 700 years ago had implored Kashmiris to remember that Shiva lived in all beings often forms the backdrop to the interviews. Kaul has attempted, through dialogue and personal narratives, to bridge the fissures that erupted in this shared space and to bring back a fast fading syncretism that had been the dominant way of life in the not-so-distant past of the Kashmir valley.

Access to Health Care for Refugees in New Delhi

Sahana Basavapatna
[Currently working on the Refugee Program in a Delhi based organization, The Other Media]


What should the standard of health care for refugees be in an urban area? How should the policy be framed and how should this policy be implemented? These are some of the question that this article seeks to answer, based on the experience of working with Burmese refugees in New Delhi. It is not an exhaustive study of the access to health care in a metropolitan city like Delhi but is based on some hands on experience of our attempt to facilitate health care services in case of serious illness.

In countries like India, which has neither ratified the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, 1951 nor has adopted a refugee protection and rights legislation, refugees come within the mandate of UNHCR. Although the Government of India informally recognizes refugee status and allows them to live within its territory, it formally does not take the responsibility to care for refugees in areas of employment, education, health care, social security and other areas. Be that as it may, experiences of negoitation with state institutions that are mandated to provide basic services speak of the various ways in which the State may or may not aid refugees while they stay in the host country. It is for this reason that the role of UNHCR and its Implementing/Operational Partners become important, not only as a pressure group but also as an agency that would support and facilitate refugee protection and assistance in the city.

The Problem

Health care for Burmese refugees 1 in New Delhi comes under the mandate of UNHCR with the responsibility of implmenting the policy and programs delegated to Implementing Partner, the YMCA. Refugees are encouraged to access Government hospitals for treatment as they are free. Additionally, YMCA in discharging its support functions provides translators, community health workers, a shuttle service from select points to the hospital, and psychosocial support for unaccompanied minors and women. Lastly, doctors in YMCA provide primary health care facilities and reimbursement of costs of medicines on submitting the medical prescription and bills. Thus, although refugees have an avenue in accessing government hospitals and health centres, serious health issues often go untreated due to monetary constraints.

The question then is, what should be the nature of support and assistance in ensuring that health issues do not go untreated?

A Way Out, But What Lessons Does this Example Teach Us?

A recent experience would help raise some of these concerns. In September 2008, the Desk was approached by a 78 year old Chin refugee seeking assistance for immediate heart surgery for a pacemaker. A recognized refugee, he lives with his two children, does not earn and is supported by an allowance of Rs. 1400 by UNHCR New Delhi.

This request led us to get in touch with the Government hospital which had earlier diagnosed him 2 where it was recommended that the patient be admitted at once. This is relevant and indicates the extent of confusion and lack of clarity on the ways in which health becomes an accessible service on part of both the patient and the hospital. This is an example of the little knowledge about refugees and their situation amongst people generally and institutions such as these in particular. On the other hand, the Desk on its part assumed that admission was not possible because the patient not only does not have the monetary resources for such a surgery 3 but is also a non citizen, meaning that he would not be entitled to free medical services for surgeries such as these that cost a lot of money. The refugees themselves, more often than not, intimidated by the way in which government hospitals such as these work – lack of information that is readily available, the little time that doctors usually have for patients in a typical situation, and lack of sufficient knowledge about the bureaucratic nature of these institutions.

The hospital was infromed about these constraints such as the paucity of financial resources and lack of proof proof indicating his economic status such as a BPL Card or a Ration card. We were told that admission and free treatment would be possible if we could submit an Income Certificate 4 from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate 5. With the assistance of Socio-Legal Information Centre, one of the Implmenting Partners, the patient was received the Income Certificate and within 2 months was admitted to the hospital. A “Purchase Committee” assessed his file and agreed to assisting the patient. At the time of writing this article, the patient is back home with a successful surgery.

Some points are worth highlighting from this experience. It brings to the fore, questions of the extent and nature of health care and assitance available to refugees generally in India. This is perhaps the first time that a refugee with negligible income is able to get treated free of cost for major illness/health condition.

Long Term Implications

What does this experience imply for refugee communities, the UNHCR and the Government in the long run. Perhaps the hospital on its part addressed this issue in the manner it did purely from a medical point of view, oblivious to other legal and policy considerations 6. If an income certificate is the only hurdle between poor refugees and access to these services, this should become part of the health policy and be disseminated across all refugee communities.

The Role of the Implementing Partners in their “Support” Functions

The YMCA and SLIC have an important role to play to ensure that specialized health care becomes a reality. Thus, while not only ensuring that information about the procedures involved in applying for an income certificate and helping refugees acquire them would have to be undertaken by them on a regular basis, their role in equipping community social workers and community health workers to “work” the health care system would also be crucial. Similar would be the role of other NGOs in this regard.

Community Health Workers would need to be trained in not only language skills but also on the nature of the health care system and the way it operates. Often refugees are frustrated by the way they are treated in the hospitals, not knowing that Indians run the risk of an indifferent hospital staff equally. This leads to a feeling of discrimination and hostility towards the Indians which could be avoided.

However, a team of Burmese community health care workers unaccompanied by Indians would not help in building capacities of the Burmese in the long run.

The Role of the Burmese Community

This also highlights the importance of language skills amongst all refugees despite knowing well that not all are able to learn either Hindi or English well. From our experience, most of the Community Health Workers are ill-equipped to deal with these situations on their own.


The question as to the nature of assistance and the standard of health care for refugees is one that the UNHCR itself is trying to answer. While the perspective that refugees should access the existing system without the need for establishing parallel system specifially for refugees is appreciated, what is clearly lacking in New Delhi is a well thought out system of equipping refugees and local authorities to deal with the fact that refugees would always have the need to access basic services, notwithstanding the lack of governement policy in this regard. For the Burmese community in particular, pressure on the Government on the question of health care is another way of bringing their concerns to the fore, in a situation where relations between India and Burma are warm to the exclusion of any concern for human rights and and democracy in Burma.


1.This example would also apply to any other refugee seeking similar assistance.
2.G B Pant Hospital in North Delhi.
3.A pacemaker costs Rs 45,000 or Rs. 60,000 depending on what the patient opts. In a private hospital, there would be additional expenses of rent for the bed and medicines etc.
4.An income certificate is issued in about three weeks. An application is made to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate by submitting a copy of the ration card, an affidavit regarding residence, occupation, property owned and income. A local enquiry is conducted by the office and the certificate issued on submission of the Report.Refer (accessed 8 March 2009)
5.Each district in Delhi is under the charge of the (). It is further divided into sub-division with each such sub-division under the charge of a Sub-Divisional Magistrate.
6.I would like to thank my colleague, Mr Leo Fernandez for bringing out this point while discussing this matter with him.