Muzaffarnagar: Left in the cold to die

After the riots, it’s now a living hell for the displaced Muslims camping in tents around the villages of Muzaffarnagar

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

The unnerving thing about reaching Muzaffarnagar was the characteristic silence from passers-by when asked for the way to the relief camps housing the displaced Muslims. Taking the meandering  road to the camps through dusty sugarcane fields and dainty poplar trees is nothing short of an idyllic ride. Even the little town of Shahpur, which houses one of the biggest relief camps, betrays no air of a communal violence that had claimed the lives of more than 50 people. But once inside the 200-tent strong camp in Basikala, Shahpur, the stories come flying thick and fast. There are families still bereaving their loss. The ones who faced the worst form of violence – losing a loved one to a mob fury – are uncannily silent. Others say it’s because they’ve got some compensation from the government and other agencies, and are fearful that this too might be snatched from them. This camp has seen some high-profile visits by politicians, including PM Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, among others. Around half of the families have received some basic compensation, around Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, to help them move on, buy land and start ekeing out a living again. However, most of them are still without the basic amenities such as blankets, to deal with the dipping temperatures. Rehsana, 48, says the government was handing out one 8ft by 12 ft rug for 10 people. “Even with three of them stacked together, it’s difficult to keep the cold out. And how will 10 people sleep inside a tent that can house not more than 5 or 7?” she says. Mercifully, no one has lost any family member in the camp here to the cold. 

But nearby, in Loi village, the cold is taking a toll. Already, 16 children here have died of the cold and other conditions related to living in the open. This sprawling camp has around 800 tents propped up on the ground. The surroundings are unimaginably filthy, an odious mix of excreta and muck from the drains all around the camp. The handful of bathrooms are even worse. Mohd Naushad, who lost his 68-year-old mother to malaria in the camp last month, says several children have succumbed to unknown diseases while in the past few weeks. “My neighbour’s 10-year-old daughter died of a deadly mix of malaria and typhoid. There are at least 6 other children who’ve died of the same cause. I don’t know how long this will go on for. There is not even clean water to drink here,” he says. 

While we were speaking to the families that had lost their children and loved ones to the weather – an avoidable tragedy had the state acted in haste – the District Magistrate was holding forth a meeting with the Commissioner of Meerut, the Muslim leader of the people living in the camp, and some of the people themselves. When asked what the government was doing to prevent the deaths due to the cold and open-air diseases, the DM Kaushal Raj bizarrely remarked that the deaths hadn’t been confirmed. When confronted by our reporter, who had just spoken to several families that had lost their children, he said he needed to check whether the deaths had taken place in the past one month. The next day, the government announced that 16 children had indeed died in the camps in Shamli, including the one in Loi, all in the past two weeks.