This is the second in a three-part series critiquing the Delhi government’s Assistance Scheme for the rehabilitation of survivors of the Northeast Delhi riots. Names, where necessary, have been changed. Read the first part here.
Shabnam was sitting by her children’s bedside when her husband, Faizan, received a phone call from their neighbours. The family was in Meerut, only a few hours away from their house in Northeast Delhi’s Shiv Vihar, visiting relatives for the week. On February 25, 2020, Shabnam’s father had called to tell them of the violence unfolding in Delhi, and – even worse – of the armed mobs gathering in their own neighbourhood. He and his five other children, all of whom live with Faizan and Shabnam, had fled Shiv Vihar that evening after rioters had begun targeting Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the area.
That morning, on the phone, Faizan’s neighbour confirmed his worst fears. “You should come home,” he said. At some point in the last two days, a mob had gathered around his house and, first, ransacked it –then, set it ablaze.
“The rioters have burned all of it – all four floors,” he told them. Another neighbour sent Faizan a video of the burning house, which showed whirls of smoke shrouding blackened walls, a fire raging in a sitting room on the ground floor, and deserted roads – save a few policemen standing close by.
Faizan had moved his family to Shiv Vihar only four years ago, after having saved enough money to build a house of his own. He earned a living as a pheri worker – walking tens of kilometres every day to sell clothes door-to-door – and, before the riots, had begun saving again to set up a shop for himself. He and Shabnam had laboured to make a comfortable life for themselves and for their children – neither had the heart to return to their home in Delhi and find it reduced to ashes.
Around the same time, on February 27, 2020, the Delhi government released its Assistance Scheme for the rehabilitation of riot survivors. The scheme establishes three categories for compensating structural damage to houses: Rs 5,00,000 for total damage, Rs 2,50,000 for substantial damage, and Rs 15,000 for minor damage.
Before compensation can be disbursed, however, the scheme – in addition to its troubling requirement that survivors register first information reports (FIRs) with the police – mandates a site visit and inspection by the area’s sub-divisional magistrate and a team of representatives from the public works department.
Four days after their neighbour’s phone call, Faizan and Shabnam mustered the courage to return home. Upon arriving, the family found that nothing remained of their house – besides its charred structure and a handful of surviving possessions, burned beyond recognition. Shortly thereafter, with the help of volunteers at a neighbouring legal aid camp, Shabnam filed an application under the Assistance Scheme, and began the long wait for the compensation owed to her.
A few days later, in the first week of March 2020, a small team of government officials came to inspect the family’s house. Faizan and Shabnam took them through each room and meticulously documented all the possessions the rioters had stolen. From the almirah in the bedroom, Shabnam’s jewellery and Rs 3 lakh Faizan had saved to establish a clothing business of his own; a refrigerator from the kitchen – the stove and the gas cylinders too; and from other rooms: a television, a washing machine, a cooler.
The officials clicked photographs and prepared an assessment report, but – despite Shabnam’s repeated requests that she be provided with a copy of it – they refused to share their findings. Across the board, in fact, survivors asking for copies of the state’s assessment reports have been turned away by government officials, no matter how persistent have been their efforts.
Shortly thereafter, Shabnam was awarded an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 12,500. Then, four months later, in August, she received an additional Rs 37,500. All in all, the family was given a meagre Rs 50,000 as compensation for the total destruction of their house.
The contradictions between the government’s widely-publicised aims – to help survivors recover from the violence – and its conduct on the ground, illustrated by the experiences of survivors like Faizan and Shabnam, betray a deep disregard for fair and just rehabilitation, and for the well-being of its constituents.
The minutes of a meeting held on February 29, 2020, offer another telling example: sub-divisional magistrates reported finding 24 houses fully damaged in Shiv Vihar and Johripur, and 50 houses fully damaged in Mustafabad, Gokulpuri, the Tyre Market area, and Brijpuri. Each of these fully damaged houses, then, are owed compensation of Rs 5,00,000, at least. Yet, in compensation lists published by the sub-divisional magistrate (Karawal Nagar), responsible for the neighbourhoods listed above, not a single survivor’s claim for house damages has been assessed as a house suffering “total damage”.
In part, such glaring discrepancies in the government’s work on survivor rehabilitation can be explained by the ambiguity of the Assistance Scheme, which – amongst other things – affords inspection officials absolute control over the process of damage assessment, and, further, impedes a survivor’s ability to challenge the compensation awarded to them.
By mandating state-administered site visits to assess a survivor’s compensation, the government seeks to guard against disingenuous claims of loss and to award relief commensurate with the exact nature of each claimant’s damages. But, a cursory reading of the scheme’s fine print illustrates a startling absence of any codified procedure in assessing damage, nor any efforts toward ensuring impartial assessments – the scheme, in short, makes no mention of how to assess damage.
When pressed on the issue and asked – in a Right to Information (RTI) request submitted on behalf of Faizan – about the different factors considered when categorising damage as minor, substantial, or total, the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (Karawal Nagar) responded: “… it is not possible to categorise[d] the damage, as the quantum of damage varies in each case.”
Astoundingly, the same government responsible for the creation of distinct categories of damage is arguing the impossibility of categorising damage – all the while evading the question: on what grounds is a survivor’s damage assessed?
The state has made no attempt at answering—not through RTIs, nor in its practice. Instead, in place of pre-determined and standardised criteria against which all state officials are instructed to assess damage to a house, one finds an ad-hoc and arbitrary process of assessment, left entirely susceptible to the whims and fancies of the inspecting officials.
Further, by failing to share copies of its assessment reports with survivors, the government violates a fundamental principle of natural justice, and neglects to undertake a responsibility crucial to its functioning: the state administration, like our courts, must provide the parties involved in any dispute with rational justifications for the decisions it takes on a given matter.
But, because riot survivors are not informed of the basis on which their damages are assessed, they are left unable to effectively challenge the compensations awarded to them – no matter how meagre. As a result, the government has the last word on the rehabilitation process, and inspection officials are held accountable to nobody – least of all to riot survivors.
“My family has received close to nothing – why?” Shabnam says. “Why are we being made to run in circles for what the government promised us? I just want to move on.”
Shabnam is one of the hundreds of riot survivors neglected by the state. As we argue above, the scheme’s underhanded approach to damage assessment is, in large part, responsible for the continuing troubles of survivors with damaged and looted shops or houses; but its equally ambiguous conception of bodily harm and injury deserves further elaboration too.
Asif had returned from Lucknow three days before, on February 22, 2020, after a long trip for work. On the three-kilometre walk from Mustafabad, where he lives, to his sister-in-law’s house, in Behta Hajipur, he thought only briefly of the accounts of violence that he had heard the day before.
“I never thought something like that could happen in my neighbourhood,” he recounts.
He spent the day with his nieces and nephews – a quiet, ordinary afternoon at home, in the company of his family. At eight, as everyone was sitting down to eat, Noor Jahan – his sister-in-law – received a phone call from her cousin, asking to speak urgently with Asif. His sister’s son-in-law, Ashfaq, had passed away. Asif left immediately and began walking home, worried that if he didn’t return in time, his family would bury Ashfaq’s body without him. At the time, he did not know that Ashfaq had been shot dead in the riots, not far from where he lived in Mustafabad.
As he drew closer to Chaman Park, Asif heard staggered gunshots and saw several fires in the distance. The streetlights had stopped working and, as he walked quickly through the dark, fear steadily grew in him. Within only minutes of his house, in the shadow of a small masjid, Asif suddenly heard a loud crack, then felt a painful throbbing in his thigh, and fell to the ground.
That night, when Asif regained consciousness, he found himself on the first floor of Al-Hind Hospital, in a makeshift emergency room. Around him, a number of other injured men and women lay on mattresses and blankets as a handful of tired doctors made rounds.
Without an x-ray machine at their disposal, the staff at Al-Hind was unable to remove the bullet that had struck Asif; it remained buried in his thigh. His wound was bandaged and stitched. At one or two that morning, in the first hours of February 26, 2020, an ambulance finally managed to make its way past the mobs and police blockades to Al-Hind Hospital. Asif was transferred to Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Hospital.
At around four that morning, after his stitches had been undone and an x-ray made, a doctor arrived to ask after Asif’s injuries. She asked him to sit up and – without a word of warning and, more importantly, without any anaesthesia – pushed two fingers into the entry wound in his thigh and began pulling the bullet out. When Asif cried out in pain and begged for something to numb the pain, she told him that the hospital didn’t have any and he could leave if that didn’t suit him.
The wound was bandaged and dressed, but the doctor did not stitch it close. Asif couldn’t bring himself to ask why. He was discharged that same morning. At first, he cleaned and bandaged the open wound himself, at home – and though he saw that the wound was becoming infected, he remained too afraid to leave the house.
At last, in the first week of March, he visited Al-Hind Hospital again, where doctors expressed shock at the condition of his wound and stitched it shut. He continued receiving treatment at Al-Hind for many days after. Shortly after that, Asif visited the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (Karawal Nagar) to submit an application for compensation under the Assistance Scheme.
The scheme creates two distinct categories for assessing the gravity of an injury: minor injuries, which are awarded Rs 20,000, and serious injuries, which are awarded Rs 2,00,000. In the second week of March, Asif received Rs. 20,000 in compensation. His gunshot wound had been categorised as a minor injury.
In keeping with its pattern of arbitrary categorisations, the scheme makes no attempt at establishing a meaningful distinction between minor and serious injuries. To make matters worse, the state administration seems to disregard existing definitions of simple and grievous bodily harm in favour of its own unintelligible system of damage assessment.
For example, Sections 319 and 320 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) offer definitions for hurt –“bodily pain, disease, or infirmity”– and grievous hurt – which accounts for eight kinds of injuries, respectively. One of the eight situations explains grievous injuries as any “hurt which endangers life or which causes the sufferer to be during the space of twenty days in severe bodily pain, or unable to follow his ordinary pursuits”.
Asif, who – except for his regular visits to the hospital for the dressing and bandaging of his wound –remained on bed rest for upwards of a month, and who still complains of weakness in his left leg, evidently qualifies as suffering from grievous hurt – by the standards of the country’s penal code, at least, if not of the Delhi government’s Assistance Scheme.
Further, the scheme makes no attempt at accounting for situations that complicate the simple binary of minor and serious injuries. What happens, for example, if a survivor suffers a secondary infection as a consequence of the negligent medical treatment of a primary injury sustained during the riots? Or, how would the government assess the claim of a victim injured at the hands of law enforcement officials –regardless of whether the injury was malicious, accidental, or simply incidental to maintaining order?
A thoughtful scheme would make provisions to address such extraordinary circumstances – but, in keeping with the Assistance Scheme’s general inadequacy in establishing standard practices for damage assessment, everything is left to the discretion of state officials charged with inspection.
Asif is amongst several survivors of the North-East Delhi riots pursuing legal action to challenge the Delhi government’s assessment of damages and to remedy the paltry sums of compensation awarded to them by the state.
In December, following orders issued by the Delhi high court, Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Hospital was asked to constitute a medical board to re-examine Asif’s injuries and issue a conclusive opinion on whether they are minor, or serious.
That afternoon, on December 18, as he was sitting in the waiting room, hospital staff approached Asif and began taunting him – calling him a rioter, sneering at him for seeking the state’s help after participating in violence against it.
“Nothing has hurt me as much as being spoken to like that,” he says. “Like I was a criminal.” The medical board, comprising four doctors, inspected the scar left by his injury and documented the symptoms of leg pain and weakness he still feels.
But, even where survivors have been able to challenge the scheme’s deeply flawed damage assessment process, the state has been persistent in its attempts to deny adequate compensations through its tired strategies of ambiguity and opaqueness.
In light of this, the report issued by the medical board makes total sense. It offers a surgeon’s opinion on Asif’s injury: “Scar is about 6.0 cm above [to] knee joint on sensory and motor examination. No scar tenderness.”
The board makes no mention of Asif’s abiding pain, nor the difficulty he reported in extended periods of physical activity. This report, which suggests that a wound – by virtue of its having healed ten months after the date of injury – was not serious at the time of its infliction, was submitted by the Delhi government as proof supporting the categorisation of Asif’s injury as minor.
Though Asif intends to challenge the report of this medical board, he has little faith left that he will be fairly compensated. “I had been hopeful at first, but I don’t expect much anymore,” he says. “I’m trying to make my peace with what I’ve gotten, and where I am, but it’s hard.”
By offering compensations for varying scales of damage, the government sought to assure survivors that any attempt at rehabilitation would cater exactly to the nature of each individual case – that nothing and nobody would be overlooked. But, the scheme’s silence – which, still without remedy 11 months later, one could argue is deliberate – on what defines the limits of each category of damage, and its embrace of inspection officials as the final arbiter of a survivor’s compensation is a harrowing blow to the rehabilitation of riot survivors.
Time and again, in meetings immediately after the riots, the chief minister and the deputy chief minister are on the record emphasising “the need to restore normalcy and to build confidence among the people in riot-affected areas”.
And yet, 11 months after violence gripped Northeast Delhi, it has become starkly evident that the government’s attempts at providing relief and rehabilitation to riot survivors have been entirely negligent, to say the least.
Yash Kumbhat is a third-year student at Harvard College and full-time volunteer at Neev – a foundation for pro-bono legal aid assisting riot survivors in their fight for fair compensation. Eklavya Vasudev is a lawyer and co-founder of Neev.