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Muslims suffer in frigid northern India

Deaths of 34 children highlight the plight of thousands displaced by riots in September.

Last updated: 02 Jan 2014 13:17
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More than 30 children have died in relief camps amid frigid temperatures in northern India [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Muzaffarnagar, India - A woman wearing a gold and blue sari weeps uncontrollably as she clutches a photograph of her daughter in the bitter cold of a relief camp in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Her daughter Sasyat, 13, died in the camp in Loi village from malaria and exposure three months ago.

The distraught woman's husband Mohammad Harun said the family - which includes his elderly mother-in-law and four other children - are desperately trying to protect themselves from severe weather conditions.

"There's no medical facilities here," Harun told Al Jazeera outside his makeshift home that includes a tent and mattress. "After children started dying other NGOs and political parties started caring. The government doesn't give us any medical facilities. The quality of the medicines was not good."

Four months ago rioting between Muslims and Hindus in two communities in the Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts left dozens dead and about 50,000 displaced. Many from the Muslim community fled their homes seeking shelter from the violence at camps in the two districts.  

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Sixty-five people died in the clashes in September 2013, sparked by the killing of three men who had objected to the harassment of a young woman.

The rioting was the worst violence in Uttar Pradesh in recent memory with the army deployed to the state for the first time in two decades. In the aftermath of the riots, as many as 40 camps were temporarily set up to house those affected.

Today, Loi is officially the last camp but there are still 18 unofficial ones in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar with about 20,000 people living there.

The existence of the camps months after the violence erupted and the poor living conditions have come under intense scrutiny from concerned citizens and India's media.

Children dying

As many as 34 children aged below 15 have died in the relief camps since September 7, a recent report by a government-appointed panel said.

Officials have denied media reports that most of the children died from exposure to the cold, saying the deaths were caused by dysentery and pneumonia, among other illnesses.

The panel, set up by the Uttar Pradesh government, did not report a lack of facilities at the relief camps could have played a role in the deaths.

 Indian army trucks patrol Muzaffarnagar district [EPA]

A senior official of Uttar Pradesh state, AK Gupta, said most of the children who died "had been taken outside the camps for treatment by their parents or were referred to government hospitals for treatment".

However, Gupta caused outrage when he also declared: "If people died of cold, then nobody would survive Siberia."

Upon visiting the Loi relief camp, where about 6,000 people live, it was apparent the severe cold weather likely played a role.

It was only after the official report of deaths was released that conditions at the camps gained attention among political groups vying for votes in this year's general elections.

Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi's unscheduled visit to the camps before Christmas - and just two weeks after his party's defeat in Delhi's Assembly election - was widely seen as a move to reaffirm support from the party's traditional base.

Doctor's account

Dr Akbar Khan, neonatologist and child specialist, went to work at the Loi camp following the press coverage of the children's deaths.

"There's so many people living here in unfair conditions," Khan told Al Jazeera in between checking a baby's chest at his open-air examination room. "There are poor medical services. What about medicines for people? There are a limited number of drugs."

Elsewhere in the camp, a group of doctors from the Hamzah Imran Medical and Educational Trust handed out boxes of medicines. Positioning themselves on chairs around an open space, dozens of sick children and adults lined up for health checks.

"We're here because of the media attention following the report into the child deaths," Dr Mohammed Imran said.

"We heard there was a child with scabies all over his body. We will also treat those with gastro, diarrhoea, iron deficiency and give pregnant women medicine. The weather is very cold here."

Dozens of sick children lined up for medical attention with coughs and wheezing among the most common symptoms.

The bitter cold has made life in difficult in Muzaffarnagar [Showkat Shafi/Al Jaeeera]

No compensation

Three men with greying beards sat together in their shop at the camp selling the most basic of goods. Between them they had lost a grandmother, mother, son and brother because of the freezing weather over the last few months, they said.

"They died from the winter cold. We tried [to save them] but unfortunately they didn't make it," said Kasem, who lost his seven-year-old son.

Like the Harun family whose daughter Sasyat died, none of the men have received any government compensation.

While the Uttar Pradesh government had promised compensation for victims of the deadly riots to build new homes, less than half of those at Loi camp have received any money.

Some families at Loi, meanwhile, have said they are being forcibly removed from the camp. Residents have alleged makeshift homes are being demolished to force victims out in order to avoid negative media attention of squalid conditions and the lack of medical facilities at the camps.

Officials, however, said people were leaving voluntarily.

"We want people to return [home]. We don't want to force anyone to leave," Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was quoted as saying.

Families here say they are reluctant to move back to their villages for fear of more communal violence erupting.

"I don't know what's going to happen to us now," camp resident Moin Deen said. "The government says we can't live out here in the open anymore, but there aren't enough houses in the village for all of us to move into." 

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Al Jazeera
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