Life In Salabila: No Relief From Relief Camps By Ratna Bharali Talukdar
Bongaigaon (Assam): The thatched shack with bamboo walls, measuring 10 feet by 10 feet, located in the Salabila Relief Camp in Assam’s Bongaigaon district, was depressingly quiet. Poverty, hunger and fatigue seemed to have blocked out the sounds that signify a happy home.
Marjina Khatun, 25, who lived there, looked exhausted. She had just returned home after a 14-hour shift at a construction site that casts slabs and her youngest child, Manowar, aged 11 months, lay asleep on a mat on the floor, emaciated and naked.
While Marjina’s life may appear as if it was straight out of a scene from an ‘alternative’ film, which had poverty as its backdrop, for her the privations were only too real. Just as they were for the scores of other Internally Displaced People (IDPs), all Muslims, who had been languishing in the nine relief camps of Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar districts in Assam since 1993. When we visited this region in late-2009, these camps, housing 5,500, people were located in Hapachara, Balajani, Tapatari, Salabila and Bardhup in Bangaigaon district and in Bangaldoba, Sanlatari, Nangalbhanga and Bengtal in Kokrajhar.
Who were these people and why were they still living in the camps all these years later? It started way back in 1993 when the Bodo-led pro-statehood movement was at its peak. These people were uprooted from their ancestral villages, which numbered around 45 across the two districts, following violent clashes between the Bodos, the single largest plains tribe in Assam, and the local migrant Muslim settlers. According to the records, 64 people of this community, chiefly poor farmers, were killed in Bangaigaon, while 36 died in Kokrajhar during that conflict. Many others were also slain in sporadic incidents that took place between 1993 and 2000.
For Marjina, a mother of four, the conflict ended any chances she may have once had of living a fulfilled, happy life. She, and thousands of others like her, were reduced to becoming daily wage earners in the very region where they had once lived in self-sufficient ancestral homes and on the very land they had once farmed. In 2009, they were continuing to lead severely constricted lives in the absence of even the most basic amenities or social security.
Time and again, all attempts at rehabilitating this community were thwarted by the hostile locals. For instance, in 2006, the Salabila inhabitants, who were earlier living in the Goroimari camp, were promised a permanent settlement because the Goroimari camp area had been acquired for expanding National Highway 31. The locals, however, opposed the move and the IDPs had to reconcile themselves to living in yet another makeshift camp, which came up at Salabila.
Salabila was typical of the nine relief camps functioning in the region. Spread over 64 bighas (one bigha equals 0.4 hectare) it was home to 1,310 families (over 6,500 people). Of the 56 tube wells provided by the government, only 22 were functional. As for toilets, while there were 40 in all, many of them were clogged and unusable. Poor sanitary conditions and a critical water crisis had resulted in the practice of open defecation, which made for appallingly unhygienic conditions. According to the camp dwellers, the hot summer months and the rainy season were the worst times of the year, with children, in particular, falling gravely ill because of the pitiable environment in which they were living.
Sarbeswar Bayan, a surveillance worker at the nearby Dompara Mini Public Health Centre (PHC), spoke of the severe health crisis these people were up against. According to him, while living in unhygienic conditions increased the chances of diseases like chicken pox, malaria, diarrhoea, jaundice and other water borne infections taking on epidemic proportions, for the inmates at Salabila the situation was worse because there was no health care facility to cater to their needs apart from a doctor who visited the local PHC once a week. Moreover, travelling to nearby towns for medical treatment was really not an option for them, given the distances entailed and the fact that every working day lost meant a significant loss of income.
Children were without a doubt the worst affected. As food was hard to come by – the rice provided to each family lasted only for 10 days in a month – around 1,639 children in the 0-14 years age group here showed signs of malnutrition.
Failing health apart, even their education was at risk. In fact, for 10 straight years – between 1993 and 2003 – many of the children had not even stepped into a classroom. It was only after the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), the government’s flagship programme for the time-bound achievement of universal primary education, decided to set up a centre under the Education Guarantee Scheme in Goroimari, was some form of schooling made available to them.
At Salabila, two Sanyogi Siksha Kendras (SSK) – which are usually meant for out-of-school children but serve as formal schools in such camps – were providing primary education. A total of 543 primary students were enrolled in 2010, being taught by six teachers, who were getting an extremely nominal salary of Rs 1,500 (approximately $27.17) per month.
As for the government-run midday meal (MDM) scheme, only one of the two functioning SSKs had been covered, revealed Amir Hussain, a teacher and secretary of the local camp management committee. He also added that the rations provided under MDM scheme were often inadequate – at the SSK where he taught, of the 419 students enrolled only 279 could be provided with a meal.
Also missing from the camp was an anganwadicentre (government-run crèche), mandated to care for children between 0-6 years, lactating mothers, pregnant women and underweight adolescent girls under the Supplementary Nutritional Programme of Integrated Children Development Scheme (ICDS).
There was a clear lack of focus in addressing the urgent problems faced by women and children, perhaps because there were women holding important positions within camp management committees. It wasn’t as if they were incapable of taking decisions or getting things done, it was just that they were not being given a chance.
Yet, women had stepped up to contribute in more ways than one. Besides taking care of the home and family, Marjina was one of the several women here who had become a breadwinner for her family. A typical work day for this hardworking woman started with boarding an overcrowded truck arranged by contractors to transport workers early in the morning to construction sites located at distant places for slab casting work.
While this kind of work paid better than others, there was great uncertainty as the sheer demand for wage work ensured that jobs were not easy to come by. Marjina revealed that she got Rs 100 (approximately $1.81) per day and some extra money for overtime duty. “Normally, I get a work like this for 10 to12 days each month,” she added. Another fallout of the employment crisis was that many a time their children were forced to discontinue school after they completed the primary levels, as they were expected to chip-in at home, with both parents away the whole day looking for work.
Nearly two decades had gone by since Marjina had first moved to Salabila and she had no idea as to how many more years she would have to spend in this ghetto. Normalcy was what everybody at the camp longed for. Hope kept alternating with despair. The words of young Hamida, who had grown up as an IDP in Salabila, said it all: “Over nearly two decades, many people visited us – sometimes at the Bangaigaon relief camp, sometimes in Goroimari and sometimes here. They all talked of giving us a settled space, but wherever we moved, there was always local protest against our presence. I have seen how young girls are practically sold in the camps in the name of marriage. Getting two meals, some education, a few clothes are all luxuries for us. Are the lives we lead here normal?”