The Muzaffarnagar riots have stopped, but the deaths haven’t. A grave humanitarian crisis is unfolding, and victims lodged at the many relief camps say that official neglect, terrible living conditions and the onset of the bitter north Indian cold have already claimed almost as many lives as the riots, which left 60 dead.
The Malakpur relief camp around 18 km from Shamli, one of the epicentres of the September riots which tore through western UP, is one that houses the largest number of displaced people. It has also seen the maximum number of deaths in the past one month: One almost every day. Of the 28 dead, 25 were infants, all under a month old.
Three months after the riots, close to 18,000 people are still huddled in camps, 4,500 in the Malakpur camp alone.
Murshida Khatoon, 25, lost her 20-day-old newborn a week ago. A plastic tent surrounded by filth and human exreta is now her home and the family sleeps on dry grass, without a quilt to protect her other children from the cold.
Riot victims living in the Loi camp, in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, burning firewood to keep themselves warm. (Raj k Raj/ HT Photo)
“We got one after I lost my child,” says Khatoon. “But what is one quilt for a family of seven?”
Another riot survivor, Dilshana Begum, who lost her five-month-old in Malakpur, says, “We took loans and sold our motorcycle to collect `20,000 to pay for hospital expenses. But even after spending every penny we had, we couldn’t save our child.”
Three other camps — Khurban, Badheri Khurd and Barnabi — have witnessed eight deaths, which include four children aged less than 30 days. Too afraid to take the dead back to the villages which were once home, hurried burials are carried out in graveyards close to the camps.
“Newborns and old people are dying of cold. There is a severe scarcity of warm clothes and toilets in the camps which makes the situation very grim. The last time a medical officer visited any of these camps was almost a month ago,” says Chaudhary Gulshad, a member of a local committee running the camp.
Four have died in Shahpur and Basi Kalan camps while Loi, another camp with a large number of displaced people, has witnessed 12 deaths — the last one just a day ago. Mohd Shaqir and his wife, Sabira, rushed to a nearby health centre around midnight after their eight-month-old child woke up screaming and wheezing. The doctor told them that the boy needs to be administered oxygen, a facility they didn’t have. So, the couple rushed to another hospital. “While we looked for a hospital, I realised he had stopped breathing,” recalls Shaqir. “He died in my arms.”
Pratap Singh, the additional district magistrate (ADM) of Shamli has no information of the deaths in the camps in Shamli. Muzaffarnagar ADM Indermani Tripathi says 11 deaths have taken place in the Loi camp. Muzaffarnagar chief medical officer SK Tyagi says only “one or two deaths have taken place” in the camps in the district and he is looking into health assistance.
“Many more deaths have gone unreported,” says Rehana Adib, whose organisation Astitva has been involved in the relief work from the initial days. “The camps are not supervised properly by health officials.”