The children of Assam’s eviction drives: away from home, out of school

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in May 2023. Full article here.
With their parents unable to afford private schools, and middle-and high schools too far from the resettlement camps, many children whose families have been displaced during eviction drives have had to drop out of school

At 12, Habija Khatun is sure of what she wants to be when she grows up. Not a doctor, like her friend Narzina. Nor a teacher, like her other friend Siara. “None of that,” says Habija. A “dangor manuh”, she says — Assamese for ‘a successful person’, someone who can stand on her own feet.

It is a simple ask. But as the days pass at the Nakhutia Janju shelter camp in Assam’s Hojai district, her home since the winter of 2021, the possibility seems increasingly remote. “I would have been in Class 6 now,” Habija says.

Like Habija, there are other children at the Nakhutia Janju settlement camp – around 300 of them, some of whom now find themselves out of school.


In January, Habija had to drop out of the local primary school she had been attending for the past few years near the Lumding forest area, around 6 km from the Nakhutia Janju camp. Displaced by an eviction drive and stripped of their land, her farmer parents cannot afford to send her to the private school any more, they say.

The Nakhutia Janju camp is a settlement of tarpaulin-covered shacks that were quickly put together when about 100 families, including about 300 children, arrived here in November 2021. The men, women and children, all Muslims of Bengali-origin, had been identified as alleged “encroachers” occupying parts of the Lumding Reserve Forest, an important wildlife habitat that is part of the Dhansiri-Lumding Elephant Reserve in Assam’s Hojai district.

Over three days in early November 2021, the families had been evicted in the presence of a large battalion of police and security personnel. While for the first two weeks they lived in tents by the side of the road near the Nakhutia market, the authorities later moved them to a 30-bigha plot in Nakhutia village.

“Did you know my daughter finished reading the Quran in one month… by herself?” Habija’s mother Karimun Nessa says proudly. Their ‘home’, held together by bits of bamboo and a tarpaulin sheet, is sparse: bundles of clothes, a few utensils and a schoolbag in a corner.

For almost a year after they came here, Habija’s school had kept her on the rolls — solely on merit, free of cost and on her mother’s request.

However, when the new academic session commenced, Karimun did not have the heart to “beg the teachers” again.

Breaking down at the memory, she says, “My daughter is smart. In Class 1, she got full marks in English… but I am not able to support her education. Every day she asks me, ‘Why can’t I go to school?’.”

Seeing her mother, Habija’s large eyes welled up too.

“Worse than a cowshed”

The camp at Nakhutia Janju — one of the many which have come up following a spate of eviction drives to free up state-owned and forest lands from “encroachers” in Assam under the Himanta Biswa Sarma-led BJP government — occupies the side of a gently sloping hill.

According to data from the Assam Assembly, at least 4,449 families have been evicted between May 2021 (when Sarma took office) and September 2022. Between December 2022 and February 2023, there have been at least four major eviction drives in Nagaon, Barpeta, Lakhimpur and Sonitpur districts, displacing hundreds of families.

Most of those displaced belong to the state’s Bengali-origin Muslim community, often denigrated as “outsiders” from Bangladesh, and disproportionately affected by the National Register of Citizens exercise to count “legal” citizens of Assam. . Despite Opposition parties and civil society groups in Assam criticising the eviction drives and the government facing backlash for not providing proper rehabilitation, these drives have continued, with the Sarma-led government doubling down.

While there is no rehabilitation policy for “encroachers” since they are “in conflict” with law, the Assam government has a policy of giving land to landless “indigenous” people. However, several others, like Habija’s family, remain out of the purview of this policy.

Landless and with nowhere to go, these families have been occupying temporary shelter camps that have cropped up on plots of land that the government has earmarked for those displaced. Most of these settlements — there are at least 10 across Assam — are in pitiable conditions, devoid of even basic amenities.

In April, an Assamese newspaper reported that 50 children in a shelter camp in Hojai district’s Changmaji, not too far from Nakhutia Janju, fell sick. The Gauhati High Court took suo motu cognizance of the report, registered a public interest litigation (PIL) plea and dispatched senior advocate Bhaskar Konwar for a field visit. Konwar’s 36-page report, as reported earlier by The Indian Express, detailed the conditions of the camp, describing it as “worse than that of a cowshed”.

Hearing the matter on April 21, Gauhati HC Chief Justice Sandeep Mehta came down heavily on the Assam government, describing it as “inhumanity of the highest order”.

“How long can you keep people like cattle in temporary shelters built of tarpaulin?” Justice Mehta had told state government advocate D Nath. “Just think of your own child … living in a tarpaulin … for two years … Can you imagine the plight?”

Out of school, back to work

On an overcast Friday in April, groups of children, barefoot and with tousled haired, run about in the Nakhutia Janju camp.

Many of them have been living under flimsy tarpaulin sheets for a year and six months. “When the sun shines, it shines too hard, burning our skin. When it rains, it rains through, right into our homes. When it’s windy, our roof gets blown away altogether,” says Habija.

But the children are most upset about missing school, she says.

A few houses away, 16-year-old Narzina too found her name struck off the records in her school, with her father unable to afford the monthly fee of Rs 330 for the private school nearby. Sokina, a 12-year-old, who too is now out of school, admits that she flips through her old textbooks on days she has nothing to do.

Activists explain how most evicted communities have long subsisted on farming and agriculture. Says Pranab Doley, a Bokakhat-based political activist, “It took these people decades to form an economy around agriculture to survive. Now, without their lands, they do not have anything… How do you start from zero…how do you educate your children…how do you look after them?”

Take Narzina’s father, for example, who used to cultivate his own land. His skills as a farmer are rendered useless now, he says. “I don’t have land to cultivate and no one wants to hire an old man like me for daily-wage work,” he says. His son was compelled to drop out of school and seek work at a brick kiln in Hyderabad, where he now lives, sending his family money every month.

In the vicinity of the camp, there are three government primary schools.

“But these are already working overcapacity,” points out Manowor Hussain, chief adviser of the Hojai chapter of the All Assam Minorities Students’ Union (AAMSU), which works as a pressure group for the state’s Bengali-speaking Muslim community.

“The parents cannot afford private schools. The middle- and high schools are too far away. As a result, many children have dropped out,” he says. The court’s report from Changmaji camp too had highlighted how it was “beyond the financial capacities of the families” to send their children to school.

Sixteen-year-old Kamrul Hussain from Changmaji camp is among the “lucky” few who have not dropped out. “I am lucky, but many of my friends are not,” he says. “Some who are even younger than me are now employed as domestic helps or work at construction sites.”

Despite his good fortune of continuing his education, Hussain has not had it easy, he says. His camp, located in a particularly low-lying area, is prone to flash floods.

Outside his home, just metres away from a depression on the ground that is perennially filled with water and hovering flies, Hussain speaks of the difficult conditions he has had to live in for the last one-and-a-half years.

“It is cramped and noisy. There is no electricity… water seeps into our homes even if there is a shower, spoiling my books,” he says.

Back at the Janju camp, the girls echo his experience.

“Life is just difficult in the camp,” says Narzina. Now instead of going to school, the girls start the day with household chores — collecting water, washing dishes, and sometimes just sitting around for hours on end.

‘Living like animals’

Following the Gauhati High court’s reprimand, the government has intervened in the Changmaji camp. Two huge tanks providing filtered water now occupy the entrance of the settlement of nearly 350 families.

The district administration has also deputed a medical team, which is present in the camp in two 12-hour shifts a day.

“It is likely that the children got sick because of the unhygienic conditions — it is obvious that these are not conducive for good health,” says a paramedic on duty in the camp last week.

The High Court report observed that the camp “lacked basic human necessities” like toilets, drainage, electricity and sewage facilities.

“It is no surprise that the children are falling sick … due to these dire circumstances” the report said.

Nur Islam, an elderly man who has been appointed the ‘secretary’ of the Changmaji camp, says they have been “living like animals”. Pointing at what the residents use as toilets — a piece of cloth wrapped around four bamboo poles, right beside each living quarter — he says there is little to separate where “where they eat” and “where they defecate”.

“I am not saying our lives were luxurious where we stayed earlier, but it was not like this,” he says, adding that they had been living on dole from NGOs and civil society groups such as the AAMSU. He said even when 50 children fell sick in April, it was AAMSU that brought it to the notice of the district administration, which subsequently swung into action. “Women… pregnant and new mothers… and children have been affected the most,” he says.

At the Janju camp, 28-year-old Amina Khatun, an infant cradled in her arms, alleges that she and her child have not even received basic postnatal care. “I was eight months pregnant when the eviction happened…Earlier, the ASHA workers (government accredited community-level health workers) would come for routine check-ups. Now, they don’t visit the camps,” she says.

‘A health emergency’

Dr Shanta Sinha, child rights activist and former head of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), described the situation as a “health and education emergency”.

“The children should be given relief as per their entitlements…entitlement to food under National Food Security Act, to education under the Right to Education act…they should have access to anganwadi centres,” she said. “And it is the obligation of the state to protect the children. The government is duty-bound to protect these children.”

AAMSU had submitted several memorandums to different bodies, including the National Human Rights Commission and the NCPCR, as well as the Ministry of Women and Child Development in Delhi in April 2022. Earlier this week, they reached out to the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, which has now sent a team to the ground to take stock of the situation in the Changmaji camp.

Sinha said such events left “deep scars” and “loss of confidence” among children. Doley, the political activist, said while loss of education was one thing, the government should also address the “trauma and mental harassment children go through”.

The community takes charge

The Assam government has maintained that it is relocating children who have dropped out of school. Responding to a question by Opposition leader Debabrata Saikia in the Assembly last month about the fate of children displaced by a February 2023 eviction drive in Burachapori Wildlife Sanctuary in Sonitpur district, Education Minister Ranoj Pegu said the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan Assam, was undertaking a mapping exercise to enrol the children in schools in the vicinity.

“They are also creating non-residential special training centres to educate the children. Moreover, the children will be given books free of cost,” Pegu had said in the written response.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Pegu said the children “were immediately being relocated” to schools nearby.

“The government is taking steps,” he said, but was unable to respond to specific cases, like the ones in Changmaji and Janju.

In the meantime, community members have taken it upon themselves to educate the children. Take for example, 34-year-old social worker Musabirul Hoque, who runs the “Educare Foundation” trust. Since June 2022, aided by donations, the foundation has been running a school in Dalgaon’s Shyampur exclusively for those children displaced by the Dholpur eviction drive of September 2021. The school, built close to the shelter camp in Shyampur, has seven teachers teaching 200 children from Classes 1 to 5.

In Nagaon district’s Pub Koladoba camp, the local AAMSU chapter is driving a similar initiative for children who were evicted from the Burachapori wildlife sanctuary.

“A day before Eid, a storm blew away the roof of the school. But the local people came together to build it again,” says Abdun Noor of the AAMSU’s Nagaon chapter.

This year, the Shyampur school added 100 more children and extended learning up to Class 6. Hoque said children from minority communities face a number of challenges, such as eviction drives and uncertainty of citizenship status.

“The only solution is education…if the government is not doing anything about it, then we, the community members, must,” he says.