Micro Economic Initiative Programme Helps Rebuild Ginogre Community

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Fulara Sira, 45, a tribal widow and mother of four, is a survivor from an ethnic clash that displaced her family for several months. As she makes her way to the weekly prayer service at the local village church, she takes with her a small packet of rice. Despite hunger and poverty this illiterate woman – belonging to the Garo tribe in Ginogre village located along the Assam-Meghalaya border – readily donates every week her share of rice saved from every family meal through the week to the church.

For the villagers of Ginogre, this has become a weekly routine. After community prayers every Sunday, the donated rice is collected and later sold to the really needy at Rs 14 per kilogram instead of the market price of Rs 20-25 for the average quality rice. The money raised in this way is to be used to reconstruct the 26 homes and church that were burnt down during the clashes of January 2011 between the Garo and Rabha tribes.

Ginogre was severely affected during these violent ethnic clashes that had claimed 12 innocent lives and instantly displaced 60,000 people from both communities. Uprooted from their homes and hearths, the affected people were forced to take refuge in 36 relief camps set up in both Assam and Meghalaya for several months.

Fortunately, thanks to the prompt action of the administration of both states as well as local NGOs, the villagers could leave the camps within six months and go back to their homes. They were given with a grant of Rs 10,000 (US$1=Rs 47.8) and three bundles of galvanised corrugated iron sheets to rebuild their lives.

But while this may seem to be a positive outcome – it is rare to find rehabilitation take place in such a short time – the realities on the ground are somewhat different. After all, rehabilitation without a livelihood has little meaning.

Not only has the age-old interdependence between the Garos and the Rabhas – so vital for the sustenance of bother communities – been totally destroyed, the authorities have been indifferent to the needs of the affected people to access a sustainable means of livelihood. Being illiterate and extremely poor, people here have little or no access to government schemes and benefits meant for tribal communities.

Ginogre village is a perfect example of institutional neglect. While the state Department of Health are supposed to appoint Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), or volunteer health workers, for every village – and these women have indeed successfully intervened elsewhere- Ginogre, located in one of the most malaria prone areas, still does not have one.

The nearest health centre is located in Mendipathar, four kilometres away. But the road is so bad, most women here opt to have their deliveries at home. Water-borne diseases are the other major health concern. Families are dependent on dug wells for their drinking water, which is often contaminated with sewage. If we talk of nutrition, the rice given under the Below Poverty Line (BPL) scheme reaches them only once every two months and card holders get only 10 kilos instead of the government norm of 35 kilos per month.

Another government scheme that has eluded the women is the disbursement of pension. In 2008, Fulara’s husband, Darshan Marak, a primary school teacher, died of some unknown disease. Even though three years have passed since his demise, Fulara is yet to get a family pension.

Before the clashes ruined her life, Fulara was making ends meet by living off her small plot of agricultural land. Along with a rubber plantation of nearly a hectare, she was able to feed her family for four months in the year and somehow managed to keep things going for the rest of the time. But in the fighting that broke out, everything got burnt down, including her livestock and home. The family fled to the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, the traditional home of their tribespeople, and then languished in makeshift relief camps for over three months. Although she is home now, survival for Falura has not been easy. “After returning, for some days we had to beg for survival. This is against our morals and our customs. Now, my elder son, who is a student of Class XII, works as a daily wage earner to feed us,” she says.

Falura’s story is not a rare one in Ginogre village. The violence has resulted in widespread penury. A few families, including Fulara’s, however, have been fortunate enough to be identified as the “most affected” during the violence. Now they have something to hope for thanks to the Micro Economic Initiative Programme (MEIP), an initiative of the Assam branch of the Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) and the International Committee on Red Cross (ICRC), which aims at improving the living conditions of victims of conflict through livelihood interventions.

Elaborates Laba Kumar Sharma, who is heading the field activities of the Pilot Project, “The MEIP is aimed at providing actual rehabilitation to conflict victims by providing productive material to them on the basis of their traditional livelihood and needs. It follows a very distinctive procedure to identify the most affected families instead of just distributing something in the name of rehabilitation.”

To achieve this, the programme lays emphasis on phase-wise activities that include a profile assessment of the affected villages to identify the most affected people; a house-to-house survey in the identified villages to find out the traditional skills on which the family relied, prior to the conflict situation; identifying the actual needs of the most affected in coordination with the local administrative authorities; distributing materials after consultation with the village headman and other knowledgeable persons, and finally monitoring and evaluating the intervention.

Four most affected villages have been included in the first phase of the project which covers both the affected ethnic groups: Ginogre and Puthimari in Goalpara district of Assam and Genang and Thapa Dangre of the East Garo Hills District of Meghalaya.

“We distribute productive materials in accordance with the previous sources of livelihood of the affected people, and since such materials are ready-to-use, the beneficiaries can resume their economic activity from the very next day,” says Deba Prasad Sarma, Planning and Reporting Coordinator, IRCS, Assam.

According to Sarma, the most important phase of the MEIP is the monitoring and evaluation of income generating activities to examine whether the intervention has proved valuable. For this, beneficiaries have to open bank accounts in a financial institution near them prior to getting the productive grant, and depositing a certain amount of money earned through their work. In this way, the economic empowerment of the family, or its lack, can be accessed. The monitoring and evaluation exercise will continue for at least a year.

Significantly, the MEIP has already been successfully implemented among the conflict victims of the Darrang-Udalguri districts which also saw an outbreak of ethnic violence between the religious minority community and the Bodos in 2008, with over 1,00,000 people being displaced. The success of the programme in those districts has now inspired the team to extend it to the victims of the Garo-Rabha violence, according to Aparajit Saikia, who was a part of the earlier team that had working in Darrang and Udalguri.

Of course meaningful change will only happen when institutional interventions touch real lives. So what are Fulara’s expectations from the MEIP? Today she dreams only of reviving her small farm and rubber plantation. She even got the Red Cross survey volunteers to visit the site. Pointing to the damaged trees she said, “I want to start planting the rubber trees once again.”

The volunteers wasted no time in making an assessment of the extent of damage so that they can come up with a productive intervention to help Fulara forget the bitter past and nurture hopes of better days ahead.

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