It Takes a (New) Village to Right the Wrongs of Displacement

With the help of civil society organisations, families displaced during the Muzaffarnagar riots have taken ownership of their rehabilitation process.

Apna Ghar Colony decorated for the official inauguration. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Apna Ghar Colony decorated for the official inauguration. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Kandhla, Uttar Pradesh: “We’re happy here, it’s peaceful,” Wasim Mohammed told The Wire. “Par abhi bhi dil nahi lagta (Our hearts aren’t in it). This isn’t where our roots are, we have no history here.”

“But at least we have somewhere we can call our own again,” he adds, sitting in the courtyard of his home in Apna Ghar Colony.

Wasim’s family is among 230 families internally displaced during the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots that have built new homes and lives for themselves. The process was undertaken with the help of civil society organisations led by Sadhbhavna Trust, Vanangana and activist Farah Naqvi. In a unique rehabilitation endeavour, these families have designed their own homes, chosen their neighbours and taken control of their lives once again. For the last two years, the families have worked on making plots of land into a neighbourhood, a community.

Friday saw the formal inauguration of the rather aptly named Apna Ghar Colony in Kandhla, Shamli district, with activists, academics and others from different parts of the country coming out to show their support. Another similar colony was inaugurated in Kairana on Saturday.

Children playing on the roof of a house. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Children playing on the roof of a house. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Riots and displacement

Almost three years ago, close to one lakh Muslim families fled their homes in the wake of communal violence in western UP’s Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and neighbouring districts. August and September 2013 saw intense riots in the area, leading to the death of more than 60 people.

For most of the displaced persons, the only option was government-run relief camps. Over the next two years, several families decided to slowly return to their villages. But this wasn’t possible for everyone.

Imrana Khatoon with her son. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Imrana Khatoon with her son. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

The government recognised that those from the ten worst affected villages may be permanently displaced. These villagers were given an option ­– they could sign an affidavit saying they did not want to return and receive five lakh rupees per family as compensation. Families like Wasim’s chose to do this, using the compensation money to buy land for themselves in other parts of the state.

“The rehabilitation camp was extremely tough. And then the government started closing the camps altogether,” Imrana Khatoon, a resident of the colony, told The Wire. “We thought we’d never get out of that situation. Even after we got the compensation money and were able to buy this land, we didn’t have enough to build as well as pay for our everyday expenses. Most people in our family hadn’t been able to work since the riots.”

“When people bought land, it was a final statement from them that they will not be going back. That’s when we got involved in the rehabilitation process. We knew several of these families already from our work in relief camps,” Delhi-based activist Naqvi, who has been associated with the project since its inception, told The Wire.

What is rehabilitation?

As far as the government is concerned, rehabilitation efforts consist entirely of one step – monetary compensation. Amounts are fixed for the loss of life, injury, displacement.

“How do we imagine that small monetary compensation enables people to rebuild entire uprooted lives and also seek justice for what they have suffered?” former Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed said at the inauguration.

Kallu, who lost his son during the riots and now lives in Apna Ghar Colony, agreed. “I left Kutba (his village) during the riots, I can’t go back there. The government gave us five lakhs, but how much could we do with that? We weren’t able to work, we had nothing.”

The inauguration ceremony of Apna Ghar Colony. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

The inauguration ceremony of Apna Ghar Colony. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

“The real important point for governments and civil society to understand is that when people lose shelter, lose their homes, they are rendered entirely helpless to the extent that they have suddenly lost complete control of their lives because of violence,” Naqvi explained. “Trying to undo this psychological violence is the first step. Giving people control over a new space, a new home, returning their agency – that’s extremely important here. The steering wheel of life was snatched away from them, they need to feel a sense of control again by rebuilding a home that was lost. So around reconstruction, we tried to do a complete rehabilitation process that was really meant as a model, a pilot. This is meant to understand society’s common understanding of what rehabilitation after violent displacement entails.

With this idea, the process began. The notion of a partnership between the displaced persons and the organisations was central to the creation of a new community. Hunnarshala Foundation was called in, an architectural NGO known for their rehabilitation work. The team from the foundation played an important part in the construction process. They suggested engineering techniques, efficient designs and helped the families construct their own houses.

“We did similar work after the Gujarat earthquake,” Sandeep Virmani from Hunnarshala Foundation said. “When someone goes through horrific times, it is very important that they have solidarity, people who understand. Unless rehabilitation and shelter construction is done in partnership with the affected communities, and in accordance with their local architectural practices and tradition, it can never lead to true and enduring rehabilitation.”

Since the very premise of the process was to take into account different preferences and needs, the construction of houses varied for different people. Land had been bought before the organisations got involved, through dealers. Each family spent at least two and a half lakhs on land. Land rates also differed depending on the location of the plot within the colony. According to people in the colony The Wire spoke to, land ranged Rs 2,000 and 3,000 per gaj, or square yard.

Houses in Apna Ghar Colony have been designed according to the traditional architecture of the displaced people – big houses with a courtyard inside that house several families. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Houses in Apna Ghar Colony have been designed according to the traditional architecture of the displaced people – big houses with a courtyard inside that house several families. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

The displaced people were central to the process of rebuilding. They designed their new homes and contributed both materials and labour. The organisations also supplemented this with further compensation, between Rs 1.25 and 1.5 lakh per family. This was given both as cash and as raw materials to build the house.

Further highlighting the ownership families took of the process, not all suggestions made by Hunnarshala Foundation were accepted. A family that preferred not to be named told The Wire that people from the organisation suggested certain traditional designs. The family rejected this advice, on the grounds that local mistris would not be able to handle designs they didn’t know enough about, making it difficult to make future repairs.

“Each house is different because people have designed it themselves,” Naqvi said. “That’s the beauty of this process.”

For the women, this was also an empowering process. “We made decisions like where the kitchen and bathroom should be,” Shammo, now living in Apna Ghar Colony. “We’d never imagined we’d be able to design our own home.”

Several families told The Wire that their new houses were much smaller than the ones they had before they were forced to flee. The government’s definition of a ‘family’ also has something to do with this – different family units with separate kitchens were often taken to be one because they live under one roof, though in different rooms. In these cases, the five lakh compensation had to be shared between several families.

Another unique feature of this process was that it went far beyond just a new place to live. The organisations helped people get new identity cards, enrol children in school, get job cards and sign up for government entitlements. “It’s not just money or a home,” Naqvi told The Wire. “It’s security, neighbours, a future for your children. At least the basics ought to be simply handed to them on a platter – a voter ID card, linkage to government schemes, school admissions, Aadhar card. This should not be a struggle at every stage. None of this costs a lot, it just means the government needs to do more than throw money at people.”

“An integrated community is also so important, scattering is one of the worst things that happens during violence,” Naqvi continued. “That’s what we’ve tried to ensure here.”

Most men in the colony work as pheris (door-to-door salespeople) for garments, fabrics and sheets. With help from the organisations, 287 people (in both colonies combined) have applied for job cards, 227 have already received them and applied for benefits.

Children from colonies have been enrolled in primary schools with help from the organisations, though several continue to attend the local madrasa.

Invisibilised displacement

Internal displacement in India is rarely ever talked about. Disasters, both natural and otherwise, are measured in terms of the death toll, conversations centre around the loss of life. “Invisibilising displacement is extremely dangerous,” Naqvi said. “Of course the ideal situation is that people should be able to go [back to their original] home. But if that isn’t possible, do you just abandon them?”

“To this date, there is no official data collection (on displacement),” she continued. “To the extent that even today I can’t tell you, nobody can, how many people were permanently displaced after Muzaffarnagar, what the degree of displacement was. There is no acknowledgment, except of these ten villages.”

Women outside their home in Apna Ghar Colony. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Women outside their home in Apna Ghar Colony. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Recognising what people have through and the human cost of displacement is a first step to successful rehabilitation, this effort shows. By creating a sense of ownership and trust, people have begun to slowly adjust to their new lives. “We all know how we ran (during the riots),” said Sajid, one of the residents of Apna Ghar Colony, addressing the crowd of residents and well-wishers gathered at the inauguration. “We didn’t even have slippers on our feet. From there to today, our lives have changed completely.”

The role the civil society organisations have played in this process has brought out numerous loopholes and inadequacies in the government’s uni-dimensional approach that assumes cash can make up all forms of loss and ignores social and economic contexts and processes needed to live a life of dignity. The need for a community-based, bottom-up approach to rehabilitation has come out strongly.

But the process of reintegration, especially after violent displacement, is complicated. While civil society organisations can (and have) played an important role rebuilding lives, official support for rebuilding social ties and supporting integration has been missing. Government apathy towards what happens to displaced persons in such situations, and an apparent lack of concern for their future security, may only enhance physical separation on the lines of religion.

This article has been edited as it erroneously stated that compensation from the organisations was provided only in the form of raw materials.