I remember her face but not her name. She was one of the 30 people I met one winter afternoon in 2009 at Basaguda village in Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-hit Bijapur district. A thin, tall woman, she stood at the edge of the group, listening attentively to her neighbour who was narrating an incident of an armed attack on the village that had left them homeless for months. When my local contact asked her to narrate what she remembered of that violent night, at first, she was a bit hesitant.
But when she started — after a bit of prodding by her neighbours and family members — her description of the violence was graphic. She narrated how armed Salwa Judum (SJ) activists had landed in Basaguda one evening, accused the tribal residents of being Maoist supporters, ransacked their belongings and burnt down their homes. “We ran to the forests to save ourselves. We hid there for weeks. I was eight months pregnant. He was born there,” she said, pointing to her young son. “But many never came back....they went off to Andhra Pradesh and Orissa”. Salwa Judum was initiated in the Bastar region in 2005 as a State response to Maoism but was disbanded after a Supreme Court order in 2011.
Stories similar to what happened at Basaguda and how they forced many to move out are common in strife-hit Bastar. Caught between the two armed groups — the security forces/SJ and the Maoists — thousands of tribals — Koyas, Dorlas, Halwas, Bhatris, Murias and Marias — have fled to other neighbouring states, leaving their homes and families behind. There are many villages in the Bastar region that have only old and infirm people staying there; the young have all migrated.
And today when the forest and mineral-rich Bastar region goes to vote, those migrants — civil-strife-induced Internally Displaced People (IDP) in United Nations terminology — will not vote. They will not get a chance to question their leaders or demand their rights. The Congress, keen to win back the tribal vote in the state after the 2008 debacle, has raised the issue of rehabilitation of such people in its 2013 manifesto, but the BJP is mum.
Rights activists, who work with IDPs in AP’s Khammam district, which borders Chhattisgarh, say that seasonal migration for work during the chilli harvesting season was common in these areas but then the tribals would go back to their villages after the end of the season. But the influx of tribals to AP accelerated between 2005-2007, a period coinciding with the increase in the intensity of the activities of SJ cadres. These days, however, migrants also blame the Maoists for selectively targeting those who had once moved to SJ base camps and are now keen to return to their villages.
Though it is well known that people have moved out/are moving out of the villages of Chhattisgarh, there has been no sustained effort by the state to reach out to them. A couple of months ago, a team from Dantewada did meet migrants in AP and asked them to go back to Chhattisgarh. The migrants refused, saying that they want safety not free food (referring to the Raman Singh government’s cheap rice programme). Local press reports in AP say there are 50,000 migrants in Khammam district alone, but reports by non-profit organisations put the figure between 18,000 and 24,000.
According to an ActionAid India report, in India, there were at least 6,50,000 IDPs between 2009 and the first half of 2010 as a result of conflict and ethnic or communal violence. The actual number could be higher.
Although internal security issues exist in 16 out of 28 states, India has no national policy for responding to issues affecting IDPs, though its absence does not absolve states from their duties towards IDPs. The present laws are fragmented and have scant regard for issue of displacement, rehabilitation and resettlement of IDPs. In the absence of an overarching framework, IDPs are more often than not, left to their own devices. And since welfare services and schemes can only be accessed by people who are registered as residents of a particular state and who meet eligibility criteria, the displaced cannot access them and are forced to depend on sympathetic officials for periodic handouts. Moreover, application processes for new documents are time-consuming, making it difficult for people to re-apply for services if they move to a new area.
During a recent visit to Terapad village in Chintur, Khammam, Dorla tribal migrants told to me how the police and the forest departments harass them, accusing them of being Maoists. Local labour contractors exploit them, using food and money as inducements. The children of IDPs are routinely found to be malnourished, the women anaemic.
The pathetic life conditions of the IDPs have now started reflecting even in their folk songs. One such song (available on www.cgnetswara.org) is about why the tribal families are leaving their home in Chhattisgarh and how difficult are their lives now: “….we has no drinking water, we are working as labourers and even in winter, we have no clothes,” a Dorla girl sings.
Physical dislocation has also led to disruption of cultural and community ties. “We used to hold festivals.... there would be songs, dance and food. All that is history,” said Marur Kamam, a 65-year-old woman, who has made Terapad her home for the last eight years. These days, her family members are not invited to any community festivals or weddings back home; their presence could mean trouble for those who still live there.
In Khammam, I met V Gandhi Babu and Venkatesh of the Agricultural and Social Development Society (ASDS). They have been working in these IDP villages for 10 years. “Without an official framework for IDPs, it’s difficult for us to convince officials. There is no coordination between the different departments regarding these people,” said Babu, director, ASDS. Babu added that an IDP framework would help them to access funds earmarked for the migrants in their home states since they remain unutilised there. “For example, what is happening to the education funds or food grains that were meant for these people in Chhattisgarh? Since they don’t stay there, it should be diverted to AP so that these people don’t die of hunger here,” he elaborated.
The demand for a single law specifying the entitlements of conflict-induced IDPs is getting louder. And rightly so. Only a protocol can guarantee — at least, put the onus on the State to provide — them a life of peace and dignity.