At the Neem Kheri bus station, Salima looks up nervously at the darkening sky and puts a handful of rice in a pot to boil. Her children gather around the warmth of the fire as her husband works fast to erect a bamboo frame over which he can then set up camp for his family of five. “It’s going to rain,” he mutters as a streak of lightning flashes overhead. Even the heavens, it would seem, are unsympathetic.
Salima and her three children, the youngest just a few months old, arrived at the open space near the bus station just hours earlier from the Loi relief camp, set up by the Uttar Pradesh government after nearly 50,000 people were displaced in communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in August-September.
At Loi, where 6,000 of these displaced people have been living since early September when the riots broke out, the official story is that they are leaving “voluntarily”.
“The weather conditions have worsened,” said additional district magistrate Indramani Tripathi at Loi. “And so, these people who have received compensation are moving to pucca buildings and better accommodation.”
With temperatures plummeting, there are no pucca buildings in sight on the open land near Neem Kheri bus station, just three kilometres down the road. Other tents are being pitched along the road, under the open sky. The state administration is handing out rations for a week and paying for transport.
Tripathi admits that not all who are leaving have received compensation. “We are noting down the mobile numbers and addresses of those who are leaving,” he says. “They will receive compensation in due course.”
In the past two days, 500 tents have already been removed from Loi. “Last night, the pradhan (headman) told us to pack up and leave,” says Islaman who, like many at the camp, is from Phugana village.
Islaman says she has received no compensation, has no idea when and if it will ever reach her and, more crucially, has nowhere to go. “We cannot return to our village because we will be killed if we return. I don’t know where we can set up our tent now,” she says.
Jabbar, Loi’s pradhan, is evasive. “Please don’t ask me anything, otherwise I will get into trouble with the government,” he says. However, he does concede that he and the Loi village elders are under pressure to get the relief camp evacuated.
On Tuesday morning, six trucks arrived at Loi camp to “help” evict the last remaining 80-odd families. The camp also had a “VIP visitor” in the form of Muzaffarnagar’s district magistrate Kushal Raj. “The media has reported so many deaths and bad conditions here,” he said. “We are now persuading the people to leave for safer places.”
But there is no “safer place” for people who have already lost their homes and most of their possessions. “This is absolutely the last straw,” says Rehana Adib of Astitva, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that is working for relief and rehabilitation. “People who have already lost everything have been brought to the streets.”
Among them is Asma, who gave birth to a baby girl just eight days ago at Loi. Seated on a cot at Neem Kheri, she says her husband is “making arrangements” for the night. An NGO has given her baby some warm clothes and socks.
In the aftermath of the riots, there were as many as 41 camps. Today, Loi is, officially, the last camp—though unofficially, there are still 18 camps with as many as 18,000 people living in them.
It is Loi’s continuing, festering presence that serves as a rebuke to the Uttar Pradesh government of chief minister Akhilesh Yadav that is currently in the midst of a 14-day Saifai Mahotsav at Yadav’s native village in Etawah district that includes Bollywood-style performances, doctors and ambulances on vigil and gas heaters to keep the “cultural troops” and their audiences warm.
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has yet to visit Muzaffarnagar post riots and has dismissed those still living in the camps as “political activists” planted by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress party.
Thirty four children have died by official count in the camps set up at Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. The Uttar Pradesh administration has dismissed reports of deaths from exposure to the cold, with principal secretary (home) A.K. Gupta declaring: “If people died of cold, then nobody would survive Siberia.” The state government has now constituted a fact-finding committee on Supreme Court directions.
The existence of the camps, nearly four months after the communal riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar, points to the failure of the administration to rehabilitate displaced families. Most men are daily-wage labourers who used to work in fields owned by the Jats. They say they can find work anywhere but what they need is a permanent home.
“I can never go back to my village,” says Mustakeem from Phugana Village who is one of the few displaced who has managed to find pucca accommodation at the village of Jogia Kheda, district Budhana. “I get threats even now. They burnt my house and I am lucky that I was able to save my life.”
As evening fell on 31 December and as those displaced at Loi camp managed to set up tents at Neem Kheri, officials arrived at the open space adjoining the bus station to “persuade” the 50-100 families there to leave. “They have nowhere to go,” says Mustakeem, who was badly beaten by local Muslim goons for speaking to the press.
Astitva’s Adib confirms that the administration is making an all-out effort to remove the tents even from Neem Kheri. “The new tactic by the administration is to employ local goondas to ‘persuade’ these people to move and keep those who are active from speaking to the press,” she said.