9 April 2020 12:21 AM

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PAYAL DHAR | 3 MARCH, 2020

Delhi Violence: Citizens Lead Relief Efforts Despite Absence of State Support

There is a pervasive distrust of the authorities.


NEW DELHI: Amid heavy police and paramilitary presence, against a backdrop of a targeted destruction of homes and livelihoods, and accompanied by a near-total absence of state support, relief efforts in the violence-hit neighbourhoods of north-east Delhi are helping residents start to pick up the pieces. But any appearance of normality is superficial. “Things are looking ‘normal’ quite fast because largely it isn’t each other that the residents are afraid of,” said Tanvi [real name withheld], one of the organisers of the numerous citizen-led relief initiatives around Delhi.

There is a pervasive distrust of the authorities. In Bhagirathi Vihar, at sundown every day, the police do an all-sirens-blazing convoy of the main road, as an overt deterrent to any mischief makers. “The police are always here,” said an elderly Muslim shopkeeper, “and regularly make patrols. They turned up promptly 72 hours after the riot [he used the term ‘danga’] started.”

Tanvi said that this distrust of the cops and of the “establishment” coupled with the absence of a relief infrastructure by the state is hampering a systematic dispersal of aid. “During a crisis, people always pitch in to help, but in the long-term, the state has to step up,” she said.

As of now, the bulk of the relief work is being carried out by civil society groups, a network of individuals and organisations, the local people, and of course, local networks like mosques. Dr Arman of the Minorities Education and Empowerment Mission (MEEM) said that they have been working on the ground, round the clock, right since the violence started. MEEM are helping with setting up relief camps in the area for survivors who have either lost their homes to arson and looting, or are too scared to return. “Over 5,000 people need to be housed,” he said.

The temporary housing in Indira Vihar and Chaman Park, organised by MEEM, is already sheltering over 2,800 people, and is well-stocked with clothes and medicines. Most of the survivors here are from Shiv Vihar, one of the worst affected areas, where burnt bodies are still being recovered from the drains and the shells of burnt houses. The residents here were daily-wage labourers with meal-to-meal subsistence, and have suffered multiple tragedies in loss of lives, homes and livelihoods.

One of the camps being set up is at Mustafabad Idgah, which is expected to take in about 3,000 people. “This is all being done by the local people,” said Sagar, “the quam.” Sagar was among those injured, luckily superficially, in the police violence, and is helping the local Wakf board in getting the camp ready. “At the moment we are organising things like buckets, mugs, mattresses, blankets,” said Dr Arman, basic necessities before people can start coming in.

On Sunday evening, a mobile toilet van arrived as we were leaving the area. Reaching the Idgah camp would require physics-defying manoeuvring in the narrow streets, but more than that, without the aid of municipal bodies, providing sanitation for 3,000 people with only five toilets is not a sustainable situation, Tanvi said. “Already, there has been a diarrhoea scare,” she added, “and rumours of women reporting that they feel pain while urinating, which could be the start of infections.” There is no way to deal with this without the state stepping in.

“Survivors are living on the aid and generosity of neighbours and friends at the moment,” she said, “but rebuilding lives, including homes and livelihoods cannot happen without the state machinery.” It needs to work the other way round, she said, with civil society supporting the state relief and rehabilitation infrastructure.

Tanvi and her network of people were among the first to respond with relief material the night violence broke out. However, accessing the riot-hit areas, she recounted, proved easier said than done. Violence was still going on, and while the police agreed to having an officer escort the relief team, the civil defence volunteers who were the local points of contact did not show up. “We were getting desperate calls, with people saying at least send some food for our children. But then at 4:30 am I had to make that terrible call saying help is not coming.”

Humanitarian crises also have to bear the cost of psychological trauma. Maria, a trainee nurse from the Missionaries of Charity’s Delhi chapter, who are supporting MEEM with the relief work, spoke about the need to address that. “There is everything here [temporary housing]—food, clothes, medicines. But they need someone to listen to their pain.”

Normal is still a long way off.

(Cover Photo: MOHIT DOCK/The Citizen)

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