Coronavirus pandemic leaves Delhi riots victims twice displaced

Hundreds of Muslims who took refuge in relief camp following February violence vacated after lockdown was imposed.

Muslims sit inside a relief camp in Mustafabad in the riot-affected northeast of New Delhi
Victims of the violence have also complained of delay by the government in disbursing their compensation [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

New Delhi, India – The three newly installed lights fail to illuminate Jameela Begum’s burned ruin of a house.

Its walls heavily blackened with soot, this was the place she had called home for 18 years before religious violence in the Indian capital erupted in February. 

“You can still breathe the ash in the air. It is in an unlivable condition,” Jameela, 55, told Al Jazeera.

On February 23, Jameela’s neighbourhood in northeast Delhi was ravaged by the worst violence the capital had witnessed in decades, which left at least 53 people dead.

The violence took place amid protests over a controversial new citizenship law, which critics said violated India’s secular constitution and was aimed at further marginalising its Muslim minority.

Dozens of people, including a large number of Muslims, have been arrested for the violence.

India police accused of targeting Muslims in violence probe

Displaced again over pandemic

Following the riots, Jameela’s family of eight was forced to move to a relief camp set up in an Eidgah (grounds where Eid prayers are held), along with 600 others.

On March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown and urged people to stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

As soon as the announcement came into effect the next day, the Eidgah relief camp was cleared and its residents forcibly evicted.

“The authorities said we were getting too comfortable. The last two days in the camp, we were told they didn’t have essential food supplies to feed us due to the lockdown,” Jameela told Al Jazeera.

The displaced families were given Rs 3,000 ($60), 20 kg of wheat, 10 kg of potatoes, and were asked to vacate the camp.

Now, Jameela’s family lives in a tenement close to the camp with limited access to food, no medical supplies and no scope to practise physical distancing, forcing them to tackle the pandemic without state support.

“This kind of displacement exacerbates health problems – respiratory infections, diarrheal infections and stunted growth in children,” said Dr Sylvia Karpagram, public health expert.

Author and activist Farah Naqvi told Al Jazeera that when people are forcibly displaced from their homes, they must be guaranteed a sense of security.

“Relief camps are set up as an immediate response for victims of targeted mass violence and are vital to give the affected community a sense of protection,” she said.

“The state needed to shift its imagination to deal with victims of communal violence combined with COVID-19. They had to be given safe accommodation that would enable them to maintain physical distancing, sanitation and hygiene.”

Delhi violence Reuters
People injured during Delhi riots take shelter at a hospital after they had to flee their homes [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

Failure to act in time

On March 20, a Delhi court ordered the state government to “prioritise the health needs” of the people in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and set up three additional camps to practice adequate physical distancing.

But the Delhi government did not follow the court order and closed down the relief camp four days later, claiming that the inhabitants “left voluntarily” and were not asked to leave.

“We are giving cooked meals to the poor and e-coupons [online registration to access food rations] are being provided to families who have lost their ration cards,” Haji Yunus, a legislator in the Delhi government, told Al Jazeera.

On March 28, the Delhi High Court directed the government to aid the displaced victims and provided it with a list of more than a thousand families who needed rations and medical kits.

The list included riot victims living in temporarily rented accommodation or staying with relatives.

“On April 3, the Delhi government suggested to place them in shelter homes intended for migrant workers, which was unacceptable,” lawyer Sneha Mukherjee of the Human Rights Law Network told Al Jazeera.

Naqvi said the suggestion displayed the Delhi government’s lack of understanding of the different needs of homeless people and victims of targeted mass violence.

She said shelters for migrant workers are gender-segregated, while riot victims have different requirements, a psychological need for safety within their family being primary among them.

Naqvi said living in proximity to their homes and to be able to visit them helps the victims accept the tragedy and rebuild their lives.

Delhi violence
A Delhi municipal worker stands next to heaps of the remains of vehicles, steel cupboards and other materials on a street vandalised in Delhi violence [Altaf Qadri/AP]

Compensation to victims

The victims of the violence have also complained of delay by the government in disbursing compensations, which they also said were not sufficient.

Many said the Delhi government had handed out compensation forms but did not provide processing numbers to help them track their applications.

“The dispersal of compensation will take time as the limited government resources are being prioritised for COVID-19,” Yunus told Al Jazeera.

For loss of life, the kin of those dead are being given a million rupees ($13,000), which they complained was not enough.

Mohammad Waqil, 58, who lost his eyesight after he was attacked with acid by the rioters in Delhi, said he received an assistance of only 25,000 rupees ($375) from the government.

Jameela Begum said she had asked for compensation of 800,000 rupees ($10,500) for the loss of her property but is yet to hear back from the government about its status.

“A government that claims to be a proponent of efficient governance has made colossal blunders in terms of withholding receipts, delayed dispersal of compensation, and untimely closure of the camp during [one of the] the worst global pandemics this world has seen,” said Naqvi.

Source: Al Jazeera