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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Bru migrants in Tripura try to feel at home in Kahamtaipara resettlement village

While some of the displaced Bru migrants claim they have been provided plots on slopes, the administration said they had agreed to build houses that match with the topography.

Written by Debraj Deb | Agartala |
Updated: December 7, 2021 3:01:35 pm
The local administration has been building concrete block-paved roads, huge water reservoirs, laying pipelines for safe drinking water, installing conventional and solar-powered electric lighting systems and assisting the migrants in building their houses in the picturesque village.

Atop a hillock that can be reached from the Damcherra-Khedacherra Road in the Panisagar sub-division, 200 km from Agartala, lies Kahamtaipara — one of the first resettlement colonies of Mizoram’s Bru migrants in Tripura. The barren hillock, which was once covered with wild vegetation, is now one of the 11 “homes” for the migrants.

Twenty-three years after they escaped ethnic violence in Mamit, Kolasib and Lunglei districts of Mizoram, 32,000 Bru migrants are on their way to be permanently resettled in Tripura, thanks to a four-cornered agreement in January 2020 between the government of India, state governments of Tripura and Mizoram and the Bru migrants.

As part of a Rs 600-crore package announced to resettle the migrants at 15 locations across six districts, a forest land has been converted into a 22-hectare colony with steep slopes, a hilly stream, loose soil and small gorges at Kahamtaipara. There’s greenery all around but most of it is outside the colony area and out of bounds for the migrants.

Here, 1,032 families would be permanently resettled as domicile citizens of Tripura, putting an end to the over two decades of protracted displacement and the largest internal migration in northeast India.

The barren hillock, which was once covered with wild vegetation, is now one of the 11 “homes” for the migrants.

The resettlement started here from April this year. Apart from Kahamtaipara, similar colonies are under construction at Kaskau and Bhandarima villages in north Tripura, Haduklaupara and Bongofapara in Dhalai district and West Kalajhari in Gomati district. As of now, roughly 1,200 out of the 6,959 Bru migrant families living in Tripura would be resettled in these villages.

Speaking to indianexpress.com, Bruno Msha, general secretary of Mizoram Bru Displaced Peoples Forum (MBDPF), said the migrants are happy at finally getting their own homes and the resettlement village has been planned as per the agreement. According to the agreement, the migrants have been granted free ration and Rs 5,000 sustenance dole every month for two years, Rs 1.5 lakh one-time financial support and Rs 4 lakh for constructing permanent houses.

The local administration has been building concrete block-paved roads, huge water reservoirs, laying pipelines for safe drinking water, installing conventional and solar-powered electric lighting systems and assisting the migrants in building their houses in the picturesque village.

However, the first showers of the Monsoon this year have caused a lot of trouble.

Many migrants feel the location isn’t favourable as many of the allotted plots are downhill, on the slopes of hillocks and on loose soil, which makes it extremely difficult for any housing structure to stand when rainwater washes down the barren slopes.

As of now, roughly 1,200 out of the 6,959 Bru migrant families living in Tripura would be resettled in these villages.

“Our resettlement started here from April this year. Three hundred-odd migrant families are being resettled here as of now. Others will come in phases. But some families don’t want to accept these plots. There are slopes, loose soil and concrete houses can’t be erected on them. Many houses are being built with wood, bamboo and such materials but these aren’t easily available either. The houses will be built to spend our lives in them. How can they be built on such unstable land?” Bruno questioned.

He added, “Among the proposed locations, the migrants are wary of shifting to the colonies in Khowai, Sepahijala and Unakoti districts as there were protests by the local communities in these places against the resettlement. The migrants fear they might face problems and don’t want to risk losing their homes again.”

Franklyn Molshoi, a migrant living at Kaskau, said Bru migrants are among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups and they largely depend on slash and burn cultivation, locally called jhum, for sustenance.

“There’s no land available for jhum cultivation in the resettlement village. Two years later, when they (government) stop the ration and cash dole supplies, what happens to us? The spaces in the colony are very congested as well. There’s no space between the plots. In case of a fire, no vehicle will be able to enter since there’s no provision of lanes between the plots,” Franklyn said.

The migrant leaders said they have raised the issues several times with the local administration and agencies engaged in implementing the resettlement but the problems are yet to be addressed.

“If they want to resettle Brus, let them do it with dignity. No work should be done hastily,” the leaders said.

Here, 1,032 families would be permanently resettled as domicile citizens of Tripura, putting an end to the over two decades of protracted displacement and the largest internal migration in northeast India.

Meanwhile, a group of “motivators” were appointed by the local administration to ensure that the resettlement process is smooth.

Moniram Reang, one of the motivators, said, “Kahamtaipara might be a resettlement site for the administration but the Brus call it home. It’s a home after decades of homelessness. They deserve to get it right.”

Pointing at an under-construction concrete house in the colony, he said, “There’s a half-levelled hillock right behind the house. These houses have no major underground foundation. In any case of prolonged showers, the loose soil on the hillock will fall right on the top of the house. It’s going to be a nightmare for anyone.”

Pointing at another under-construction house on the slope of a hillock, Moniram said rainwater runoff is bound to loosen the soil beneath the house after a few years. “The government is spending a lot of money. Much of this land is not fit for resettling people. There can be no permanent structures on the slopes. Why can’t the houses be built properly so that we can actually live here?” he questioned.

Surendra Reang, Subhash Reang, Mohan Lal Reang and many others like them, who lived at Hamsapara, one of the six relief camps that housed Bru migrants for the last two decades, say most of them haven’t seen much beyond a migrant life.

The resettlement started here from April this year.

“We came here when I was three-year-old. I’m 28 now. For twenty-five years, I heard our people were oppressed in Mizoram. I heard we would get a home. When we are actually getting our homes, this is how it is. With so much money being given by the government, it can be better,” said Surendra.

The others said Bru migrants are not being allotted their housing plots at one go, which means, by the time a group finishes building homes, some others will not have even started. Even the financial and ration support will be cut off unequally for many.

It was already seen once when the administration stopped ration supply at Hamsapara relief camp from October 1 this year after migrants started to shift from there to the resettlement colony. However, only a handful of migrants had moved and without food supplies, those still waiting for their allotment raised a lot of noise and only then the supplies were resumed after nearly 50 days in November.

Surendra said the houses need to be built with proper elevation, internal road connectivity, safety measures and all of it needs to be delivered in one go. “Many of the registered migrant families are split-families,” he said, meaning members were married off to people of other families and the necessary changes haven’t been reflected in the refugee ration cards. If the supplies aren’t equally given and equally discontinued, there will always be someone who suffers,” he said.

The family of Nathirung Reang, 24, married to Deepak Reang, 25, of Hamsapara camp is one such split family.

“We are a split family and I work as a daily wager. We haven’t received our first housing instalment and our ration was halted earlier this year as well. I want to build my house like everyone else,” Deepak told The Indian Express.

Masumi Reang, a woman migrant who was carrying materials to build her home, said, “We live in the Hamsapara migrant camp. The plot given to us at Kahamtaipara is very small and the water supply and road conditions are not good. The money given for building the house isn’t sufficient either. We have been given plots on the slopes and building permanent houses on them isn’t easy.”

With more houses being constructed in these colonies, more families are slated to be resettled.

Many other women busy with work at the resettlement site said they want a school in the colony. “We have grown without much education but we want our children to have proper education to be able to do something meaningful in their lives. We need a school and a health centre here,” Masumi said.

The nodal officer for Bru resettlement, Dr Manas Dev, said, “We have completed 80 per cent of the work in the first phase at the four resettlement locations. We have a target of resettling 1,313 families. Construction of 1,167 houses has started and in the 800 houses completed earlier, families have moved in.” The resettlement is expected to be completed in the four locations by the end of this month.

The official said the second phase of the resettlement, which is already underway at Bhandarima and West Kalajhari villages for 1,262 families, is anticipated to be completed by February.

About the rest of the 13 locations where resettlements have been planned, the administration is waiting for the Initial Project Approval from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to divert forest lands at some of the sites. Meanwhile, newer locations are also being explored.

Although the resettlement agreement was signed on January, 16, 2020, the government is running behind schedule due to the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the country in March.

On the migrants’ objections to some of the resettlement sites, the official said, “There is no objection from the local people and the central and state governments have repeatedly urged the migrants to start living without any fear. However, the migrants are raising new objections and frequently raising demands that are not possible to accommodate.”

On the issue of plot allotment on slopes and risks of rainwater runoff, the nodal officer reasoned that the migrants themselves agreed to build ‘machang’ or ‘tong-ghors’ to counter the topographical challenges and can’t suddenly back out from what they had said.

“When the area was selected in the specific location, before getting the permission from the forest department, it wasn’t known to any official if it was steep or if the gradient of the slope was maximum since the survey was done aerially through geo-mapping. How many table tops are there or how much has to be levelled came to our knowledge only after the jungle was cleared. But the permission was only for normal houses, not for tong houses. In order to provide them relief, the government gave permission for ‘machangs’, considering gorges and hillocks. The rains arrived while the official formalities were being worked out,” the official said.

He also said the migrants preferred machang-type houses (houses built on stilts) instead of plain houses since it would allow them to rear animals like pigs, goats and cattle beneath their houses.

Tripura royal scion Pradyot Kishore Manikya Debbarman, who was instrumental in signing the Bru resettlement pact, said the issues raised by the Bru migrants are “accurate and true”.

“The fact is it is inhumane to resettle people on a land which is not liveable. The central government needs to review this,” he said.

He also said he doesn’t feel that the spirit of the Bru resettlement accord has been implemented. He said he had raised the issue with the Centre and added: “They need to look into this. Indigenous people can’t be treated the way they are being treated now.”

As many as 37,000 Bru migrants fled after ethnic clashes broke out in Mizoram in 1997 and were given shelter in six relief camps in North Tripura district. Nearly 5,000 returned in nine phases of repatriation but almost the same number returned after renewed clashes in 2009 and came to Tripura. Twenty-three years after the protracted displacement, an agreement was signed on January 16 last year to permanently resettle them. The pact came two years after another agreement in June 2018 which sought to repatriate them to Mizoram but was rejected by the migrants saying they were not “properly consulted”.

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