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The Moral Burden to Act: Inside the Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis in Assam

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  28 Feb 2015 12:00 AM GMT

By Dr Samrat Sinha

On 23rd and 24th December 2014,82 Adivasis (including 26 women and 16 infants) were shot dead by suspected militants belonging to the tiol Democratic Front for Bodoland (Songbhojit) or NDFB(S) inKokrajhar, Sonitpur, Udalguri and Chirang districts of Assam.The murder of these innocent civilians in these horrific targeted killings sparked a range of protests across the region.This also saw the launching of a large scale counterinsurgency operation (Operation All Out) with the aim of dismantling the NDFB (S).However, the focus on these ‘harder’ security questions has taken the attention away from the severe humanitarian crisis which is still ongoing in the region. With around 300,000 people displaced (including Adivasis and Bodos) in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, there are still more than100,000 people living in relief camps in increasingly sub-human conditions.Many of those displaced are refusing to return to their villages due to an atmosphere of fear. As the crisis prolongs, there is an increasing risk of severe food shortages and the occurrence of materl as well infant mortality in the relief camps.The region also witnessed a similar episode of forced displacements when 500,000 people were displaced following ethnic violence between Bengali Muslims and the Bodo community in 2012, the aftereffects of which have continued to the present day.

For those who are outside the tiol humanitarian emergency response sector, the large scale forced displacement is seen as an inevitable consequence of violence.The assumption is that the existing governce mechanisms and capabilities are sufficient to avert catastrophic humanitarian failures arising in these conflict situations. However, the dismal statistics emerging out of thecrisis-affected districts of the region, especially Chirang and Kokrajhar,belie this assumption. Rather it shows that the scale of the crisis can overwhelm the existing response mechanisms and capacities.

Statistical data in humanitarian emergencies is only an aggregate of the suffering experienced by those directly affected by the disaster. But at the same time, without statisticsthe scale of a disaster will never be truly understood. The statistics being discussed here are from an independent assessment conducted by the Center for Study of Political Violence (CSPV) in January 2014 in the districts of Chirang and Kokrajhar. The assessment relied on multiple sources of information includingvarious district authorities, civil society organizations and the affected communities (especially camp committees).

As stated in official figures there are 19237 Interlly Displaced Persons (IDPs) currently in Chirang and 71410 IDPs in Kokrajhar.Of those displaced there are 9000 children in camps (of all ages)in Chirang and 14769 children in Kokrajhar (only in the age range of 0 to 6). In Chirang alone there are 1149 infants (in the age range 0-1). Another disturbing statistic is that there are an estimated 295 pregnt women in camps in Chirang and 593 in Kokrajhar.It must be noted that these official figures are not absolute numbers but subject to a high degree of variation.Many relief camps are iccessible and remain unlisted due to the vagaries of geography and the existing security situation. The methodology underlying theCSPV assessment that included visits to unlisted camps leads to a figure of nearly 38,000 children residing in the relief camps in Chirang and Kokrajhar. This highlights the difficulty in collecting accurate and precise information for humanitarian response planning. Moreover, there is a stark difference between those camps that are listed and those they are not as official relief only reaches listed camps. Also, in humanitarian emergencies,pregnt women and infants are categories who face a high risk of mortality because of the adverse conditions in terms of lack of nutrition,the risk of water contamition, the non-provision of basic ante-tal and pediatric care. In field interviews in Chirang itself it was found that basic necessities like iron, folic acid and other such supplements are not reaching pregnt women as ASHA workers are not being able to access camps or refusing to visit cases due to safety concerns.

An often made argument that also needs to be disputed is that relief camps are “safe spaces” and that the camp population actually prefer residing in these locations because they have regular access to food and other essential items. This is absolutely untrue. A relief camp is anovercrowded space where there is no sense of home, no privacy and no regular access to food, safe drinking water or sanitation. During the assessment, it was found thatin one relief camp in Kokrajhar with 5000 residents there were 10 unsegregated toilets servicing the entire camp population. Similarly in Chirang for a camp with 1270 residents there were 6 toilets.This raises additiol safety concerns for women as these toilets are unlit and are situated in the extreme edge of the camps.

The precarious health situation arising out of unsanitary conditions is also reflected in the types of diseases emerging in the camps. Already an aggregate of 2884 cases of diarrhea and 1781 dysentery cases have been treated in camps in both districts with numbers being updated on a daily basis.The official food rations being given since the 23rd of December 2014 consist purely of rice, salt, lentils and oil, with no additiol nutritiol supplements and they are being cooked in extremely unsanitary conditions. The level of insecurity is such that people dwelling in the camps require police protection to collect firewood for their daily use, which makes the routine task of cooking itself a matter of utter despair.

While the expectation would be that given the scale of the crisis (which compares with any intertiol humanitarian emergency) a large number of specialized agencies would be present in the field to cope with the magement of the relief camps (currently numbering at more than 70), this is far from the reality. The burden of the response has actually fallen squarely on the shoulders of the various district administrationsin the regiond a handful of locally based NGOs. These responders are overstretched without any exterl help. For instance,the district administration in Chirang is facing a huge resource crunch and only has 8 ambulances available for 19237 IDPs. Moreover the camps are not clustered in one particular place which makes transportation of patients a logistical nightmare for the district authorities. The largest camps in Chirangare located more than fifty-kilometers from the district headquarters in areas along the border with Bhutan. They are difficult to access due to poor conditions of the roads and due to security concerns night travel is strictly avoided.

Due credit must be given to the stakeholders mentioned above as they are working overtime under severely strenuous conditions. Given the scale of the crisis, it is imperative that there is coordited and concerted action at the tiol level to support these humanitarian efforts. It is also important to note that the local district authorities and especially those in the line-departments who are at the forefront of the ongoing crisis actually welcome exterl help and readily provide the existing information available with them (despite limitations in their own data). The statistics collected so far present a bleak picture, which will become worse if the crisis is allowed to prolong.

In attempts to bring normalcy back to the region, the entire focus so far has been directed towards containing the occurrence of armed violence. While this is immensely important, an enhanced response to the humanitarian crisis is urgently needed. No civilized country should accept having thousands ofdefenseless men, women and children living in refugee camps in the peak of winter under tarpaulin sheets without access to bare necessities of life. The moral and ethical questions raised by the crisis in Assam gowell beyond the borders of the state and must stir the conscience of the entire tion.

(Dr Samrat Sinha, Assistant Director and Assistant Professor, Centre for Study of Political Violence (CSPV), Jindal School of Intertiol Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, NCR, Delhi.)

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