A bumper crop during the last agriculture season, the birth of a baby boy one month ahead of ‘Magh Bihu,’ the harvest festival that falls in mid-January and her husband’s promise to buy a two-wheeler with his increased income as a small trader in the East Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, were reasons enough for Himani Rabha, 27, to be happy with life.
The Rabha tribal woman from Teklipara I village, could never have imagined that just a few days later she would have to flee her home to live in sub-human conditions in a makeshift relief camp.
Ethnic clashes broke out between the Garo and Rabha tribals in the first week of January, the violence and arson that followed displaced 60,000 people in Assam and Meghalaya. The two tribes had peacefully co-existed for ages, but the recent clashes claimed the lives of 12 innocent people. It made thousands homeless. Even as 40,000 took refuge in 30 camps in Assam, the 10 relief camps set up in Meghalaya became the temporary homes of nearly 20,000 people.
Today, life for Himani and other Rabha women in Assam’s Kukurkata Relief Camp is fraught with hunger, poverty and panic. Food is hard to come by and most can’t even afford one square meal a day. Health care provisions are basic. The pregnant women are the worst hit. In the name of sanitation, the Public Health and Engineering Department has set up pit toilets, but open defecation is still common, creating huge health and hygiene concerns. The education of school-going children is on hold as most of the nearby village schools have been burnt down. Unemployment is giving families sleepless nights because they have no idea how they will ever get back on their feet without financial resources.
Himani is distraught when she looks back, “Our granaries full of paddy and our homes were set ablaze by miscreants. Animals, fowls and properties were either looted or destroyed. Now we have no means of resuming a normal life. In such a situation, with my jobless husband and three children, I have no idea what to do for survival.”
For now, the lack of work is a major problem. Traditionally the Garos and Rabhas have depended on each other for their livelihood. The men used to cross over to Meghalaya to work in coal mines, in small business ventures or as daily wagers, while Rabha women made Dakmandas for the Garos, who do not have a weaving tradition. But with communal tensions flaring up, this age-old relationship has completely broken down.
With nearly no money in hand and with the discontinuation of relief materials and rations from the state administration since February 28, camp inmates here have been dependent on external aid.
Himani has been able to construct a temporary shed with a tarpaulin sheet provided by the Assam State branch of the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) and the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC). The lone blanket, also given by the ICRC, is her family’s only protection against the cold at night, while her kitchen is lined with cooking utensils given as part of the relief kit. She has two cooking pots, five bowls, five full plates, five glasses, five cups, five tablespoons, two serving spoons and one knife. And yet, because they have limited funds, the five-member family eats only one meal in the day, utilising the Rs 10,000 rehabilitation grant given by the Assam government to rebuild houses and to buy rations.
The deteriorating health of her three children is another cause of worry for Himani. Besides her newborn baby boy, who is not able to get appropriate care, she is also anxious for her two school-going children. At a time when they are faced with such acute poverty the mid-day meals that were provided to them at their school back home would have been a god-send but that too has stopped because they simply have no school to go to.
Himani is not alone in these times of crisis. She is one among hundreds of Rabha women who share her camp. Each one of them is coping with her own nightmare. Take Triveni Rabha, 30, who is eight months pregnant. Even today Triveni, who has two daughters, gets frightened when she recalls how her family escaped their burning home and crossed a river before they found safety at the Kukurkata Police Outpost. Her husband, Dilip, has left the camp in search of work.
There are times when Triveni wishes she could go back home, as do other women in the camp. But they all know that for now at least this is almost impossible. However, with the monsoon season just round the corner they fear that their already unbearable camp life will only get tougher. Triveni speaks for everyone when she observes that there is already a food shortage.
While the Congress-Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF) coalition government in Assam had made budgetary provisions for the distribution of medicated mosquito nets and blankets among the poor, most of these have already been given out in the first quarter of the year as election freebies.
There are some who have bravely made their way back to their villages. But what they have saw clearly indicated that living there was also no option. Gutted homes have to be rebuilt. There is also an acute shortage of safe drinking water.
But while the difficulties are many, the Rabha women have decided to piece together their broken lives. Their first move was to request civil society organisations to help them set up looms so that they can immediately resume their weaving, a major source of family income. The Assam state branch of the IRCS is also getting ready to initiate a Micro Economic Initiative Programme (MIEP) to help them undertake various economic activities on the basis of their traditional skills and original livelihoods, according to Deba Prasad Sharma, Planning and Reporting Coordinator, Assam IRCS.
The MIEP, which is likely to start in June, is aiming at providing income generating assets by forming women’s self-help groups.
It may be a while before Himani, Triveni and the others are able to smile again. But their recent hardships have only made them more determined to bring back a semblance of normalcy to their lives.