The devastation caused by the September riots in Muzaffarnagar and nearby areas goes far beyond the immediate death toll. At the time, over 60 people were killed in the clashes — but what is happening now in the relief camps is adding to that count steadily. That it took media reports to bring the deaths of some 50 children in the camps to light is in itself a severe indictment of the Uttar Pradesh government and those overseeing the rehabilitation efforts directly. The Supreme Court may have issued a statement on Thursday expressing concern and directing the state government to provide relief within 24 hours — and it is commendable that it did — but it remains to be seen if there will be any concrete improvements in conditions on the ground.
The entire rehabilitation effort, after all, has been flawed from the start. The snafu in October about providing financial aid only to Muslim families affected by the riots made it difficult to understand exactly what the Akhilesh Yadav dispensation hoped to achieve; whatever it was, genuine rehabilitation certainly didn’t seem to be on the agenda. Other aspects of the compensation drive only add to the problem. The riot victims of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli left behind some 4,000 acres of land and thousands of cattle when they fled. It’s far from clear whether the Rs90 crore the UP government is distributing to make up for these losses is anywhere near the actual financial worth of these lost assets. And to make matters worse, there have been reports that district administrations have been forcing victims to sign affidavits that if they receive a payout from that corpus, they will not return to their villages and place claims for their lost property.
Money is the least of it. Far worse is the basic lack of security for those living in the camps. The government has failed repeatedly to check violence against the victims — and for those attempting to return to land now being eyed by real estate sharks, the situation is even worse. Little wonder Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said last week that he would seek a report from the UP government about the difficulties faced by the victims.
But reports and bureaucratic wrangling can do only so much. The Muzaffarnagar victims’ ordeal— set to worsen with winter approaching — is not a one-off, after all. The same problems have been seen time and again in the past. In 2013 alone, they have afflicted post-disaster scenarios in the aftermath of both the Uttarakhand floods and Cyclone Phailin; rehabilitation efforts in the former instance in particular have been disastrous in villages like Chamoli and Rudraprayag. A paradigm shift is needed in the way the government approaches such scenarios — whether natural or man-made — at both the Central and state levels. In the past two decades or so, it has shifted towards a holistic approach that integrates pre-disaster issues such as prevention and mitigation with post-disaster issues such as response, reconstruction and rehabilitation. In theory, that is a positive step; in certain instances such as Cyclone Phailin, it has paid off in part when it comes to minimising casualties. But the hard part is the months and years of rehabilitation, where, a great deal of work remains to be done.