By Pritha Chatterjee
MUZAFFARNAGAR, India, Dec 5 — Three months after fleeing their homes following the Muzaffarnagar riots, the displaced families face a new crisis — the onset of winter. The cold has already claimed many lives, mostly children, according to organizers of the relief camps who put the figure at over 40. The district officials, however, denied any “irregular deaths,” Indian Express reported.
On Wednesday, when The Indian Express visited the relief camp in Malakpur in Shamli district, 42-year-old Mehbooba was burying her four-year-old daughter Khushnooma. Sitting outside the tent — three sheets of tarpaulin that make up the walls and some blankets tied together to cover the entrance — Mehbooba pointed to holes in the sheets. “My daughter would shiver inside. I put my hand on the holes, because I had to use my dupatta to cover my other children. I have seven children and only four blankets. I have to use two blankets to cover the entrance,” she said.
Mehbooba and her husband took Khushnooma to a private hospital on Tuesday evening, after four days of fever. “They said she had pneumonia… Now I have to bury my youngest child,” she said.
In Suneti, another camp where 200-odd families take shelter under tarpaulin sheets, 38-year-old Irfan buried his four-year-old daughter Fatima in the early hours of Wednesday. “She had fever for the last four days. We managed to get a government ambulance yesterday, but by the time we reached the local hospital, she was dead,” he said.
Murshida, who has been staying at the Malakpur camp since September-end, said she buried her infant son last month. “He would keep crying and shivering. I begged everyone for a quilt, but nobody had quilts then. He died barely 15 days after he was born,” she said, brushing away her tears. Murshida said she only had her mother-in-law to help her during delivery. “There was no light, we only had one candle. I thought I would die that night,” she recalled.
Sadiya, who buried her newborn son a week ago, was rushing her daughter to hospital on Wednesday. “My baby would wheeze and cough for hours together. For the last two nights, my daughter has been coughing like that. I have borrowed money to take her to hospital,” she said.
The organizers of these camps in Shamli district said they have maintained records of births and deaths in each camp. Chaudhary Gulshad, a member of the organizing committee in Malakpur, said 26 deaths have been recorded since September when the camp was started. Barring a 60-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy, all were children under five years who died of “cold and hunger”.
“We had about 1,500 families initially, of which 649 are still here. We made every family fill a form when they arrived and when they left. They have to report every birth or death to us,” he said.
According to the organizers, nine children have died in three other camps in the area — four in Dabheri Khurd, four in Barnawai and one in Bipura. The children are buried barely 100 metres from the camp site in Malakpur.
In Muzaffarnagar district, 17 deaths have been recorded at an open camp in Loi. Five of them were newborns. The Indian Express met seven families who said their children had died because of the cold.
“We had a very difficult time last month because government rations had stopped and we were not getting any warm clothes or blankets. After my baby was born, I could see she was cold. I wrapped her with every piece of clothing I had, but she did not survive,” said Manno from Fugana village whose infant daughter died a day after she was born last month.
Sajid, who lost his eight-month-old daughter, said, “She had fever, we took her to the doctor who visited the camp but her condition did not improve. We did not have the money to take her to hospital. We watched her die.”
At the nearby camp in Joula, five deaths have been reported so far. Three of them were newborns. In Basi Kala, four deaths have been reported.
The camp organizers said the state government has stopped supplying rations since the first week of November. Many said they were down to their last stocks. According to them, the 24X7 health camps have been dismantled, and the administration has not supplied any blankets or warm clothes. Among the clothes that have been donated, there are very few for children.
“What do we make our children wear? The sweaters don’t fit them. We have been covering them in shawls and tarpaulin sheets,” said Fatima at the Malakpur camp.
Officials in Shamli said they have sent a request to “higher authorities” for distribution of blankets and warm clothes but are yet to get a response.
Meanwhile, the district administration in Shamli district questioned the veracity of the deaths being reported. “These claims of so many deaths appear to be false. If there was even a single death, the local press would have been alerted. In any case, neither the affected families nor the organizers of the camps informed us about these deaths. So how do we establish the cause of death in retrospect?” said Shamli District Magistrate P K Singh.
He said teams of doctors would be sent to “conduct a survey”. “Doctors have been making periodic rounds of the camps, but now we will ask them for detailed reports. Any health concerns of the people will be addressed,” he said.
While the Muzaffarnagar district officials have been taking reports from some of the camps, the official record of deaths is well below the numbers claimed by the families. “Eleven deaths have been reported from Loi, and four in Basi Kala,” said an official.
“We have reports of only some routine deaths from the different camps, like 11 from Loi. People seem to be exaggerating the figures now… There are no reports of any irregular deaths so far,” said Muzaffarnagar Additional District Magistrate Indermani Tripathi.–Courtesy The Indian Express