Starving tribal refugees eat rats, wild roots


JOYPUR: At the crack of dawn, Sona Murmu, accompanied by her two emaciated half-clad children, darts around in the dense jungles of Assam's Kokrajhar district, looking for something to eat. With demonic passion in their eyes, Murmu and her children, wielding spears, machetes, and sticks, are often on the lookout for holes in the ground used as burrows by rats, the only easily available food to take care of a gnawing hunger.

When there are no rats, Murmu, 45, and many of the 15,000 Adivasi Santhal tribal refugees living in Joypur relief camp in western Assam, make do with roots, herbs and tubers found in the jungles.

"Even rats have become scarce these days as most of the people here eat them," Murmu, told IANS, tears welling in her eyes. Like her, a majority of the tribals living in the relief camp are plagued by an acute scarcity of food.

"We've been surviving for months together on wild roots, herbs and tubers. At times, we fall sick. Many have died due to various ailments, mainly stomach disorders," said Dilip Murmu, a young Adivasi Santhal refugee. "Government doctors never visit our camp."

There are some 200,000 Adivasi Santhal refugees living in about 100 relief camps spread across the districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Dhubri in western Assam. The Adivasi Santhals became homeless after bitter ethnic clashes with aboriginal Bodo tribespeople, who dominate the western districts.

More than 1,000 people have lost their lives in the clashes that began in 1993. The Santhals, who migrated to Assam from the Jharkhand region in the mid-19th century to work in the state's tea plantations, were at the receiving end in the riots.

Despite the Central government footing the bill for the rehabilitation of the refugees, relief materials often do not reach those living in the relief camps. The refugees have alleged that most of the funds are siphoned off or misappropriated by local authorities.

"We got five kg of rice as relief supply from the government in May and since then nothing has come in," said Rabin Hebrom, a refugee leader.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), India's apex government accounting agency, indicted the local authorities for diverting relief funds to the tune of millions of rupees, besides squandering government money that remains to be vouchsafed, in a recent report.

The report said relief funds were diverted by the administration in western Assam for making "car sheds" for the district magistrate's office and bungalow, besides purchasing corrugated iron sheets to lodge paramilitary troopers in the area.

"It is a shame that relief funds for poor and starving people like us are being misused and misappropriated by the authorities," said Ragunath Tudu, the headmaster of a school run in the Joypur camp. "They should be punished for allowing us to starve."

The Congress Party government that came to power in Assam following elections in May has decded to fix responsibility for the misuse of relief funds. "It's very unfortunate that relief funds were diverted and misappropriated during the previous regime," Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told IANS.

"We've already started a probe into the CAG report and anybody found guilty will be punished. There will be no mercy at all," he said.

Local refugee leaders have warned that if the government fails to look after them, scores of youths would take up arms to protect the community. "The time is not far when children who grow up to find a bleak future, will pick up guns and go underground for survival," Tudu said. "The future of the Adivasis looks ominously bleak."

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 14, 2001
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