A few days back it was only freedom and nothing else that mattered, but today when she is out in the open after 10 long years in detention, she is still crying for freedom. This time though, it’s a different kind of freedom — the one that sets you free from the pangs of hunger and poverty, which 42-year old Minara Begum is fighting. A battle that she says “is different and scary”.
This 42-year-old mother of seven children from Lattigram, Udharbond in southern Assam’s Cachar district is among the hundreds of people who were released last month from various detention centres in the state. Their release follows a directive of the Supreme Court that asked the state government to release detainees – 'declared foreigners' – in order to decongest jails and prisons to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The decision of the apex court, which was in response to a petition filed by Justice and Liberty Initiative (JLI), a civil society group, on March 25, diluted the terms of conditional release of declared foreigners from the earlier three years to two years besides the production of two sureties worth Rs 5,000 each instead of Rs 1 lakh as per the previous condition.
Detained for being a 'doubtful voter' (d-voter), therefore a doubtful citizen, Minara was picked up by the police on January 3, 2010. After all these years, she now wants to make up for the time lost when she was virtually cut off from her family. But with each passing day, her feelings experience a churning — that of joy and anxiety — a paradox perhaps for which she does not have an answer. The joy she and others like her experienced soon after their release is a fleeting one as they find themselves food insecure, with no income and access to food supplies drying up.
Therefore, clearly freedom has fixed only one part of the challenge; it hasn’t changed anything else. The likes of Minara continue to live in abject poverty, forming part of a precarious existence which lacks predictability, livelihood security, and social safety nets that ensure material and psychological welfare.
Most of their hard-earned money was spent on fighting legal battles and whatever is left is not enough to feed many a hungry stomach that are part of these families. Minara has spent over a lakh, which came mostly from her husband’s paltry income made from breaking stones at nearby quarry sites. He has been jobless for the past two months and since her release on April 21 she has been praying to God to help them through the present hardship.
As of April 26, out of a total of 700 as many as 241 declared foreigners (DFs) have been released. Deputy inspector general (DIG) of Assam Police Devojyoti Mokherjee told this writer that more are expected to be released soon on completion of the mandatory detention time which was reduced from three to two years. But let’s not forget that there are many other such people who are not in detention and don’t make up the total official numbers.
On December 2019, the union home ministry had informed the Lok Sabha that nearly 1.3 lakh people have been declared as foreigners in Assam of which only six have been deported. Minister of state for home Nityanand Rai has said that a total of 4,68,905 cases had been referred to the foreigners' tribunals till October 2019. The ministry had also said that among those in the list are 290 women who have been declared as foreigners in Assam.
Besides the declared foreigners there are nearly two million people who have been left out of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which was published on August 31. The highly controversial NRC was undertaken under the supervision of the Supreme Court of India as part of an exercise to check illegal migration and detect foreign nationals that may have entered Assam illegally after March 24, 1971.
Now while many among the NRC rejects would not be dying of hunger or lack of medicine, there is a good number of people who are from the below poverty line grouping of the country’s economic index and are suffering devoid of essential commodities.
Their numbers together with those that have been declared as foreigners make up a substantial proportion of the economically backward population of the state. During normal times most of these people make a living working in farms, as daily wage earners, as labourers in construction sites and in tea plantations across Assam.
The only help that has been provided so far has been from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a few individuals who have decided to chip in with whatever support they can to ameliorate the sufferings of such people. But such forms of support are voluntary and there is no report of how much relief and assistance has been provided. Further, there is also no official report available that indicate any kind of government outreach for such people.
The Assam government had in its cabinet meeting soon after the announcement of the first phase of the lockdown decided to provide free rice starting April 1 to 58 lakh families registered under the National Food Security Act (NFSA)—or in other words those with ration cards. It also talked of providing a one-time financial assistance of Rs 1,000 to those families in rural and urban areas who don’t have a ration card. The government also gave a break-up to highlight that in rural areas, 100 families in parts with a population of around 5,000, 150 families in areas with a population of between 5,000 and 10,000, and 200 families in areas with a population of over 10,000 would get that financial assistance.
However, so far there isn’t any official data available to suggest that the relief actually reached the intended, and even if it has, then who the actual beneficiaries. are The present situation has made it extremely difficult to say if those affected by NRC or declared foreigners would have been among the beneficiaries.
Chief secretary of Assam Kumar Sanjay Krishna could not be reached over the phone to get the latest details on the relief distribution programme of the government.
However, what cannot be discounted is the fact that there are many who haven’t received any relief, not even the Rs 1,000 which was meant for people without ration cards. One of the many such examples is that of 58-year old Jiyad Ali, a declared foreigner from Phulbari village in Barpeta in lower Assam. His wife, Amela Khatun (35), who is shown as the head of the family in the ration card hadn’t received any relief till a week ago. “People who are d-voters here and their families haven’t received that support,” says Asraful Hussain, a journalist and social activist from Barpeta, adding that “Ali and family spent almost a week with little or no food sometimes”.
A local state government official at the food and civil supplies department appeared to corroborate such discrepancies. When contacted the official said that there were government instructions and therefore d-voters would not get ration, and the entire family would be impacted if d-voters of DFs are shown as guardians in the ration card.
Without support from public distribution systems or the means to purchase food from the market, food insecurity is a very real threat for a large section of this population.
So far, they have been dependent on whatever comes from contributions from people around them, or some social organisation engaged in relief distribution. “I got some dry ration once after release from detention and after that local social workers and my neighbours came to help my family,” says 48-year-old Sukhdev Ree, a tea worker from Mohonpur Tea Estate near Hailakandi district who was released in February after three and a half years of detention.
According to information available from a local social worker from Silchar, Kamal Chakraborty, a member of an NGO, the Unconditional Citizenship Demand Forum (UCDF), who has been involved in extending legal and emotional support to the affected people, so far relief has come from mostly individuals and non-government bodies.
The precarity of the present situation has also hit many other families of “non-citizens” who are from the lower middle class who have been dependent essentially on small businesses and jobs mostly in the private sector to make a living. They too now fear a slide back into poverty. The present situation has only compounded their fear as once the lockdown is over, they have to prepare themselves for a legal battle to fight their cases in the courts and foreigners' tribunals and that would mean coughing up large amounts of money for lawyers.
Now the lockdown is in its third phase and slowly the government will open up various sectors which will allow the poor to look for income. That is their only hope and pretty much the lifeline for the next few months or maybe longer.
The present situation highlights the inadequacy of a clearly thought out policy that would be more generous towards the poor and people from the lower end of the economic strata. As Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee said in his media interviews recently that there has to be a “well-articulated plan” for what needs to be done next in India, particularly for providing relief to the poor and the have-nots who have so far borne most of the brunt of the countrywide lockdown.
This applies as much to the lakhs of declared foreigners and NRC left-outs as otherwise questions are going to be raised about the existing food access and distribution mechanisms and the preparedness for ensuring food and nutritional security for such communities in the aftermath of the pandemic. Health experts warn that food insecurity could lead to some form of malnutrition with severe impacts on children and women, or even a hunger pandemic. Surely the Centre and the state governments would have to provide some answers.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)