Thursday, March 21, 2013

Interview

Jayant Narlikar had been the Deputy Commissioner of Kokrajhar ever since the end of the burnings. He arrived in office on July 30, 2012. I arrived at his office yesterday, to get a better hold on the government's position regarding this issue.

"Land is the main issue. Bodos think Muslims are encroaching on their land, and the government has failed to prevent the encroachment of this land."

When he joined his first priority was safety. He did what he had to do so that no one else died. Curfews were put in place, including a night curfew which lasted for a month. His administration arrested the ruling party's MLA on evidence that he was working with the goons who were burning homes. The state minister for irrigation and water resources was also arrested as 2 AKs were found in his home. "We wanted to send a signal that we mean business."

He established peace committees in certain communities with the purpose of amending relations between Muslims and Bodos. I wanted to find out more about these communities as this was the first I was hearing of them. Who constituted these committees and what villages had they been set up in? "We are delaying the formation of these committees on purpose, so that the locals do it on their own. See, peace has to come from within, not outside. Fear is good sometimes, it prevents further violence." I asked him for names of villages where the process of instituting peace committees was underway. He did not know.

I asked him about the impact of the conflict on the women. Women, he replied, were the weaker section of society, particularly amongst the Muslims. Bodos, he continued, were a progressive tribe and hence better off in this regard. Nevertheless, the women had been hit in the area of health. They suffered from anemia and pregnancies during this time were difficult. "I was particular about women's health. There were no deliveries in the relief camps. Water was tested every third day. Immunizations continued at the camps." Much of these mirrored what I had heard from the women. However ,this was where the paths between policy and reality diverged.

As per the Rajiv Gandhi Punasthapan Yojana each widow was to get a maximum of Rs 50,000 for income generating activities. Each family that lost a member of their household to the riots would get Rs 8 lakhs. Families in all 13,000 fully damaged homes would get one month's ration, Rs 52,700 and those holding BPL status could avail of the Indira Awaas Yojana to rebuild their homes. I had seen none of this in the communities that I had visited. No one had gotten compensation for deaths. Many had not yet received Rs 30,000 and the meaning of BPL changed after the riots. Those who had BPL cards had lost them in the fires. Besides, when everyone lost everything, the meaning of poverty changed.

The Anganwadis that had worked relatively well in the camps were no longer functional. Why? Since this was a Sixth Schedule area many sectors were not under the DC's control. During the relief efforts he had been in-charge of all the departments. Now, the BTC had taken over developmen efforts. In short, it was not the DC's responsibility. He added that since Muslim women were culturally not permitted to work there was less representation of Muslim women in anganwadis., and Bodo women were unwilling to visit their villages due to safety issues.

I returned to the issue of land, because it was an important one. Didn't he think that the landless were the ones that needed the most government assistance during these challenging times? "Genuine Indians should be rehabilitated," he replied. "Any person who does not have land in their name will not get the rehabilitation grant. This is the time to be firm. The first guilty party is my people, who allowed land transactions to take place in the 1980s."

I left his office feeling disheartened. Yes, good work had been done. Safety had been enforced. Deaths had been prevented, both in the camps and on the streets. Those with land were slowly putting back the pieces of their disrupted lives. At the very least, they had land on which they could grow crops, build a home, and avail of the government's social and economic benefits. However, those without land remained the greatest victims. Lack of this critical asset implied their encroacher status, even if they had been living here for generations. There were both Bodos and Muslims, men and women who fell into this category. Their futures still looked bleak, especially where government support was concerned.

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