Epidemic fears loom in Assam as makeshift 'refugee’ colonies spring up in unsanitary conditions

Lack of safe water and open defecation may well lead to a health epidemic in the areas
Last Updated 29 September 2021, 10:41 IST

It has been more than a week since thousands made homeless by an eviction drive by the Assam government which left two people including a 12-year-old boy dead here, are living either in makeshift shanties or under open skies.

Forced to cross the Nanoi, a channel of the Brahmaputra, over 7,000 people uprooted from their homes and farms in Darrang district now use the stream’s muddy water to drink and cook and defecate in the open as `Swach Bharat’ toilets built in their villages are now guarded by policemen who do not allow them to re-enter any part of the lands they have been thrown out of.

Local public health experts, on conditions of anonymity, said the crowded conditions, lack of safe water and open defecation may well lead to a health epidemic in the area.

The district administration however, asserted that tube-wells and toilets were provided, besides health camps established for people who say they have been forced to turn into `refugees' for the state’s ambitious Gorukhuti Agriculture Project.

Some help and relief have started trickling in since Sunday from the public at large and a few non-governmental organisations, but state agencies were not visible on the ground.

According to different accounts, around 1,200-1,400 houses were razed to the ground on September 20 and 23 in Dhalpur I, II and III villages, leaving over 7,000 people living and there homeless. Community assets including markets, mosques, graveyards and Madrassas, were among those which were felled by bulldozers.

The eviction drive on lands which the state government says belongs to it, which passed off peacefully on the first day, faced stiff resistance from local people on the second day. The resultant clash saw police firing which left not only two dead but over 20 people injured, including policemen.

"My house was demolished and my 10-member extended family -- mother, wife, my three children, my widowed sister and her three children -- now living near the channel bank in the open," Habibur Rahman told PTI here.

Rahman’s broken house was in Dhalpur-III village. "On the day after eviction, a storm came along with rains. It was a horrible night for all of us. My youngest daughter fell sick. "We received a few water bottles and some rice from some youths on Sunday. That is all we have got as relief. I had a toilet constructed three years ago under the `Swachh Bharat’ (Clean India) Mission. But now police are not allowing us to use them … its back to open fields for us," Rahman said.

A PTI correspondent saw several such septic toilets constructed under the 'Swachh Bharat Mission' by PSU oil firm Numaligarh Refinery Ltd as part of its corporate social responsibility, standing amidst the debris of razed villages.

In contrast in the makeshift shanty town springing up on the banks of Nanoi, beds, utensils, almirahs, chairs and clothes – lay helter skelter. Infants crawled around under the scorching sun as mothers tried to drive away flies and mosquitos that the late Monsoon humidity brought. Safer Ali, whose house at Dhalpur-III was demolished on September 23, said "we are citizens of India and we have been living here for decades. We have all documentary evidence, including Aadhaar numbers.

Then why is the government treating us like this? Why can't they provide us with basic humanitarian support?" he asked. Sirajul Hoque, another displaced farmer, said the police and paramilitary personnel now guarding their shattered homes were not allowing them to even collect the remaining few utensils and small household items lying scattered in the villages they were born in.

Countering the victims’ narrative, local Lok Sabha MP and BJP’s National General Secretary Dilip Saikia told PTI the "encroachers are lying" despite getting relief from the authorities. When contacted, Darrang Additional Deputy Commissioner Pankaj Deka said the administration was trying to help.

"We instructed the Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department to provide these facilities. It takes time to install them. I will have to check if these have reached the people or not," he said. The All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU) is among those trying to help.

"The government has not given a single bottle of water yet. We are trying to provide them with ration and other necessary items," AAMSU Darrang district Vice President Baharul Islam told PTI. Islam said a medical team was brought in on Sunday but more help was needed.

The opposition party AIUDF on Tuesday too distributed 200 tubewells and 500 tarpaulin sheets along with rice, pulses, mustard oil, salt, sugar and biscuits among 1,000 evicted families.

Under the ambitious Gorukhuti Agriculture Project, which will take over the lands from where the evicted families have been driven off, some Rs 9.60 crore will be spent to implement modern farming and scientific animal rearing practices. The project will eventually spread across 77,420 bighas of land in Sipajhar area.

Check out latest DH videos here:

(Published 29 September 2021, 10:35 IST)

Follow us on