I'm going to sound terribly naïve, but why hasn't anyone with the wherewithal and muscle gone to the 300-odd relief camps in Assam to improve their festering conditions? There are several answers to this terribly naïve question. But the most robust one could be that anyone going in to these hell holes to provide relief to people living in sub-human conditions may be setting himself up for avoidable grief.
In the aftermath of the ethnic-territorial violence that has erupted in Assam, some 300,000 people made homeless have joined the 180,000-odd refugees who had already been living in these camps since 1993. There are now some 178 camps for Bengali Muslims in the Muslim-dominated Dhubri district bordering Bangladesh in the south; there are some 108 relief camps in Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar in the north for Bodo refugees.
Now, say, a well-meaning Tata, a DLF, an ITC or a Wipro starts proceedings by sending out teams to set up relief management systems and infrastructure in and around these camps. They will have to go to some of these camps before others even if they intend to 'upgrade' each and every one of them. This itself can lead to politically-inspired swipes from quarters ranting about why 'more Muslim camps are being provided help than Bodo camps' or why 'some Bodo camps that don't actually require emergency relief are in the scheme'... and other similar points of questioning.
This may be a good point to ask why I haven't mentioned anything about the government. Going by the news reports I've been following, the government isn't interested in providing relief. According to the Gogoi government, these are 'temporary' shelters, so why spend much on them. In any case, why listen to these busybodies who've never even visited these putrid but safe-from-murderers zones, especially when they are clueless about that old chestnut, 'ground reality'.
According to this Dispur-Guwahati-scripted narrative that has been digested down the years with nervous but visible relief by the rest of India, the very fact that the people in the camps are alive and safe is the 'basic relief'. Which can lead us to thinking, “Hmm, they certainly look like people who are used to squalor. Things were probably as bad in their mud-stenched village houses.” A bit of ‘social class action’ and we can ease our minds.
Going by what two of my friends, Dola Mitra of Outlook and Rahul Pandita of Open, have reported in their magazines with startling and necessary detail, the stench, the lack of water and food, the utter degradation of being human in these camps in Assam are not beyond the reach of help. Kokrajhar, and Dhubri aren't inaccessible areas where people are left to survive in Siachen-like conditions or are holed-up in Afghanistan-type war lord-demarcated zones.
In 2004, I had travelled to Dhubri from Guwahati as smoothly as the boat on which I met a young Bengali-speaking chap who asked me for a job in Delhi. Have things changed drastically since then? I ask Rahul Pandita, who spent five days last fortnight reporting from camps and devastated villages in Kokrajhar, why private enterprises, usually brimming with philanthropic zeal, have flopped a curtain over India's biggest post-Independence human crisis.
“I don't think that the rest of India is bothered about Assam. It's too far away in the scheme of things,” Rahul tells me. He says that it's some voluntary workers and politically-affiliated people who are providing the most basic relief. In some cases, fellow Bengali Muslims or Bodos in unaffected villages help victims with food and other essentials. “Why an Azim Premji or a Mukesh Ambani isn't helping is a valid question that needs to be asked,” says Rahul.
This isn't about throwing money at the problem. There's enough and this doesn't require much. This isn't about getting to the source of the problem either. This is simply about providing relief and bettering the conditions of those living in these soul-and-body-destroying concentrated camps.
As a country that is frightfully proud not only of its achievements but also of its very existence ('Saare jahan se achha' and all that), it's the sheer genius of unflinching patriotism that has allowed a national shame to magically remain 'out of sight, out of mind'. Which then makes a query about why no one's improving the conditions of Assam's relief camps sound terribly naïve.
As is my silly belief that, in lieu of the very poor service provider that is the government, private enterprises with experience in infrastructure-building and human management can help fellow humans to live in conditions the rest of us don't need to wince at. And such 'relief operations' can jolly well start in the squalid camps of Assam.