I can't be wrong if I say Adivasi and Displacements are forced to get married to each other by incapable policy of our government. Some of us may be feeling slightly indifferent to market oriented hyper media, which are reporting Adivasi movements for their equal benefit. But, it's different than other million of issues of our billions of population, which need a proper attention of our policy makers. Here, I am sharing a small report on displacement of Santali Adivasi due to ethnic conflict in Assam, written by K Soren. It is bit old now but, still relevant.
The ghost of displacement is once again visiting Santhali families in Lower Assam eleven years after they were displaced from their homes in the 1996 Bodo-Santhali ethnic violence. This time the ghost is in the garb of forest officials with "orders from above" (which mysteriously cannot be traced to whom) to evict the forest encroachers. On 24th September 2007, with a few sweep of their sticks, forest officials broke down the huts of 18 Santhali families of Aie Powali village in Chirang District (earlier Kokrajhar District). Two days before that they had suddenly descended and broke down the Shiv Mandir near the village. Notices were not served either time. People are not sure when they will come again and break what next.
The problem is not just in the breaking of 18 huts, which made of bamboo and straw can be assembled together again (though at the cost of the precious few rupees of the poor). But the demolition and so called "eviction" throws up disturbing questions which needs urgent answers.
Over 200,000 people were displaced following the two waves of Bodo-Santhali ethnic violence in 1996 and 1998. 80% of the displaced were adivasis (mainly Santhalis) while the rest were Bodos and a few Nepalis and Rabhas. The government put the refugees in make-shift relief camps in Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts. A small fraction of the displaced went back to their homes and villages not long after the riots but most of the displaced have been living in sub-human conditions in these camps for over ten years. The conditions in the camps are abysmal.
After the initial period, the Assam government seems to have washed their hands off the IDPs. They get just ten days of rice as relief (which they share with many families who were never listed as camp inmates). In Deosri camp in Chirang District, 126 families who arrived later in the camp following the second wave of violence have never been listed. This despite repeated appeals by the families and by camp leaders to the authorities. People starve for days as daily wage labour is not regularly available and they get just half the rate as in other places! Many of the able-bodied men go to neighbouring Bhutan to find work for a day's ration. In the same camp, hand pumps for drinking water has been provided by an international NGO and so has medical care for the past six years. With the said NGO having completed its mission and withdrawn services from last month, people in Deosri camp have been left with no medical services again. The teacher student ratio in the Deosri camp is 1:500 in the camp with just two EGS teachers at a rupees one thousand monthly salary for one thousand families!
The Assam government started the second phase of the so called "rehabilitation" in 2004. Families have been given Rs.10,000 as housing grant and "released"('release' as from a prison?!). Release means stopping relief rations and now the family must fend for themselves, not that they were not doing so before that. In Deosri camp, 643 families have been released in two batches, once last year in August 2006 and once this year in 2007. In the haste to "rehabilitate" the camp inmates, the government has conveniently forgotten to ask where the Santhalis are supposed to go after being "released?" It would be suicidal to go back to their villages since their land, house and village has been taken over by the others. No land compensation has been given to "released families" and people are bewildered about how they are supposed to secure their lives and livelihoods with a mere ten thousand rupees. It is not enough to buy land. Are they to buy bullocks or build a house or return their debts? The injustice of the ten thousand rupees rehabilitation money is unacceptable in any humane society. Compare this to the 5 lakhs rupees rehabilitation given to riot victims in Gujarat or to flood affected people in Rajasthan. Perhaps people are less people because they happen to be violence affected in Assam!
Most of the 643 "released" families in Deosri (the story is the same for most families in other camps as well) have settled in and around the camp, in a 1-2 km radius. They have cleared some land and started growing maize and other small cash crops. Deosri and most areas where the camps are located in Chirang District are reserved forest areas. People were living in forests even before they were displaced and came to the camps. Some were in recognised forest villages and paying a tax while others have been forest encroachers from the days of their forefathers. They have become "encroachers" again after getting "released" from the camp. They are more vulnerable than ever, constantly living under the shadow of eviction, with terror of being displaced yet again.
Sonaram Tudu left the Deosri camp after 11 years and settled in nearby Aie Powali last year in August 2006 when he got his ten thousand rupees release money. With two small children he felt that "there was no future in the camp" and he could not go back to Malivita village since his lands had been taken over by the Bodos. In the new place, he cleared 4 bighas of land (a little over 1 acre) which was run over with wild grass and planted some tapioca. Sonaram proudly says that he did not cut even one single tree. He does his cultivation work at dawn and then leaves to search for wage labour in Gelengphu in Bhutan. If he is lucky, every two or three days he gets some work and earns Rs.60-Rs.70 a day. Sonaram's was one the first huts to be broken five days ago on 24th September when forest department came for the eviction drive. Five days has gone by but Sonaram is yet to rebuild his hut. He lives with his wife and children in the open under a mosquito net. He will need two thousand rupees to rebuild his hut but is scared that if he rebuilds his hut, they will break it down again. Sonaram is sad as to why the forest officials had to cut off all his tapioca plants when they came to demolish his house.
Sonaram's neighbour Lakhi Hasda has a similar tale to tell. With the ten thousand rupees release money, she and her husband Bhuta Murmu bought two small calves which cost them nine thousand rupees while they spent the "rest of the money on some kitchen utensils and clothes". They also cleared some land and have been cultivating maize on the land. But the eviction has left her with a broken house and crops destroyed. She is bewildered that if the forest people had to clear the forests then why they have not picked on the Koch Rajbongshi settlement just a stone's throw away from their row of huts. Why were they targeted? For Lakhi it is little comfort that after people protested, the demolishers also went and uprooted the bamboo fences of five houses of the nearby Bodo village. She is worried that they will have to spend precious money in repairing their house only to have it broken again if the forest people come again.
It is difficult getting the Adivasis of the camp any sort of rights under the forest laws of the land – old forest laws or even under the new "The Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Acts 2006". For one, Santhals (and all adivasis in Assam) do not have a Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and hence, they have to prove that they have dwelled in forests for at least three generations or 75 years. What "acceptable" proof can they possibly show? Also, even if they can "prove" their three generations old stay in forests, it would be in their earlier villages before they came to the relief camp. Now that they have been "released" by the government after 13 December 2005 (the cut off date to define "forest dwellers" under the new forest act), where does that place them? The forest people now label them as "fresh encroachers" and according to the G.C Basumatary, the Conservator of Forests in Kokrajhar "(have) no choice but definitely to be evicted".
But are there really no choices?
What choices did and do the Santhali refugees of Assam have? Was it their choice to have their homes and hearth burnt and to run to save their lives? Was it their choice to live in sub-human conditions in the relief camps for 11 long years? Did they have a choice when they were paid only ten thousand rupees and "released?" Is it their choice not to be able to go back to their villages for fear of being killed? It is their choice that they have to settle in forest areas because they have nowhere else to go? And now, do they have a choice when their homes are being demolished and they are being displaced once again or perhaps it is their choice to have their rights as human beings trampled and crushed?!