Finding a solution to Bru refugee issue

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Bru refugees settled in Tripura have refused to return to Mizoram till their demands of post repatriation benefits are met. Their demands include verification of land to be allotted to them after their repatriation to Mizoram, ensuring their safety and security, one-time cash payment benefits and creation of an autonomous district council for them. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) must rethink its decision to stop food and other supplies to the Bru people living in six relief camps in Tripura. A little over a month after supplies were stopped, four people, including two infants, are reported to have died of starvation in the camps. Several others who are showing signs of starvation have been hospitalized. The number of deaths could rise if authorities fail to respond sensitively to their plight. The ninth phase of the repatriation of Bru migrants to Mizoram began on October 3 and is scheduled to be completed on November 30. But food rations and the meagre doles that they have been receiving were stopped on October 1. In effect, the MHA has left the Bru migrants high and dry. Without food or money to buy their own rations, many are said to be going hungry. Among those who died is a three-month infant, whose mother was unable to breastfeed him as she wasn’t eating enough. Local officials are reported to have denied that starvation caused the death of the four people. Rather than denying the problem, they need to be informing the MHA of the impact of its decisions.

It was in 1997 that over 32,000 Bru people, who fled ethnic violence in Mizoram, were housed in temporary relief camps in Tripura. Since then, these migrants have been dependent on the State to meet their daily needs. In November 2009, the process of repatriating the Bru back to Mizoram was initiated and since then, eight phases have been completed. Several of these attempts to repatriate the Bru have not been successful, either because of a surge in anti-Bru violence in Mizoram or unwillingness of the Bru to return to Mizoram. The Bru people have several apprehensions. They say they have nothing to go back to. They don’t have updated ration cards or Aadhaar numbers and their names have not been included in electoral rolls. In a memorandum to Mizoram Home Minister which they submitted to the Tripura North District Magistrate on September 30, the displaced Bru people had explained that their demands had to be fulfilled to make them participate in the repatriation process.

It is likely that it is to force the Bru to return home that the MHA has shut off supplies to the relief camps. This may produce the desired result, but it is an inhumane approach to take. Repatriation must be a voluntary process to be successful. It is shameful that the scourge of starvation deaths continues in India. The number of deaths due to starvation at the Bru camps may be much smaller than the numbers reported from Uttar Pradesh and among Jharkhand’s tribal populations, but even this is unacceptable. Indian officials are notorious for denying the problem of starvation by defining starvation narrowly. This approach must change.

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