//Aditi Bhaduri : Who's the victim?

Aditi Bhaduri : Who's the victim?

Hindu Business Line, Friday, Oct 06, 2006

Militancy has left J&K with an estimated 40,000 widows. But government help is selective and arbitrary, adversely affecting many families. Whatever the actual numbers, it is clear that the government's relief scheme for the families of the victims of militants has not been a success.

Across the Dal Lake, in an idyllic island setting in Gawmarg, Jammu and Kashmir, sits 32-year-old Firdausa. She is weaving and her fingers move mechanically. Her eyes are tired and she neither notices the sun shining brightly overhead nor the cedars in bloom around her. She has two ageing parents-in-law and two small children to care for. Born into a poor family, Firdausa's life was never easy, but things turned particularly bleak after her husband — the only earning member of her family — died in a militant attack. She is now the sole earning member in the family.

Though registered under the compassionate appointment rule — SRO 43 (a State government directive under Central government supervision) — Firdausa's is a long wait. She is entitled to an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh, but only part of the money was released. It was spent within two years. The rest of the money, meant for the children, will be released only when the children turn 18. Now, weaving beautiful Kashmiri shawls, Firdausa makes only about Rs 1,000 a month in spite of the backbreaking labour she puts in.

Firdausa is not alone. Ghausiya, 21, has a four-year-old daughter. Her husband was killed by the army three years ago. Since he was a suspect, the government offered her no relief. Unwanted by her mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law, she went back to her mother, also a widow. Last year, her sister lost her husband in an accident and came to live with them. The three women sustain themselves by taking up odd jobs, mostly weaving.

The authorities have no census for the number of widows such as Ghausiya and Firdaus in the Kashmir valley. The State Women's Commission, which has been without a chairperson for the last two years, too has no official figures to quote. Unofficially, though, the Commission puts the number of women whose husbands were killed in `militancy-related activities' — that is, both widows of those killed by militants as well as those killed by armed forces — at around 40,000. The Public Commission on Human Rights (PCHR), also unofficially, puts the number at 25,000-30,000. The PCHR puts the number of women whose husbands were killed by the armed forces at more than 50 per cent of all women widowed due to `militancy-related violence'.

Dr Hameeda Banu — Professor of English at Kashmir University and Founding Member, Women Waging Peace, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University — explains: "With 17 years of conflict claiming the lives of an ever-increasing number of men, more and more women are the main bread-earners," she says.

Whatever the actual numbers, though, it is clear that the government's relief scheme for the families of the victims of militants has not been a success.

The most immediate concern is that the government's definition of `victims of militancy' is narrow. It only accounts for those killed by militants; all people killed by the armed forces are automatically classified as `militants'. "Government largesse does not extend to families of those classified as `militants' — and these families are in a majority in the Kashmir valley. They are left to fend for themselves; their children suffer, go hungry, are unschooled and are often forced into child labour," says Asiea Naqash, a member of Srinagar Municipal Corporation and Secretary General of the women's wing of the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

The Social Welfare Department doles out a meagre stipend (about Rs 200 per month) to militancy-affected widows, but this does not include women whose husbands died in an army encounter. Similarly, the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, set up by the Indian Home Ministry, provides Rs 600 per month only for children of people killed by militants.

"How are the children of so-called militants at fault? The government does nothing for them. Can we blame them if they take up the gun when they grow up?" asks Naqash. The PDP has been pleading with the Centre for the past three years to provide aid to all children who suffer due to militancy, without any categorisation.

Some NGOs such as the Maqbool National Welfare Association (MANWA) and the Yateem Trust — both working with orphans and widows in Kashmir — have also taken up this issue with both the State and Central governments. According to Abdul Rasheed Hangura, General Secretary of the Yateem Trust and State representative to the National Planning Commission, there are 15,308 orphans whose fathers were killed by the armed forces. Both Hangura and Hashim Qureishi, Chairperson of MANWA and of the Democratic Liberation Party, demand that the government provide relief in some measure to widows and children of those the government categorises as `militants'. "Otherwise, the government could be creating an entire generation of terrorists," warns Qureishi.

However, most NGOs in Kashmir have not taken up this issue with the government. Nighat Shafi Pandit of HELP Foundation, which also works with orphans and widows in Kashmir, feels that it is better to set up her own initiatives than waste time lobbying with the government.

Meanwhile, even the widows and children who meet the government's `victims of militancy' definition have not found justice or aid forthcoming. SRO 43, passed in 1994, guarantees the next of kin of such victims an ex gratia relief of Rs 1 lakh and a Grade IV government job. But there are not enough jobs to go around and the bureaucratic red tape further lengthens the process, government officials explain. There are an estimated 3,000 cases pending still, according to the office of the Divisional Commissioner.

There are schemes in Jammu and Kashmir that do not discriminate along the lines of SRO 43. However, even these schemes have proved to be ineffective.

There are several Central government schemes available to all poor women, including widows, irrespective of the category they come under. But the Social Welfare Department, which is responsible for the schemes, is accused of not disseminating information adequately, leaving the potential beneficiaries unaware of the schemes' existence. Shamim Firdaus, President, Women's Wing, National Conference, accuses the Department of corruption, nepotism and poor work culture. Many others, like Pandit and Qureishi, also make these charges.

The State's Rural Development Department, for example, has self-employment schemes for poor women, which includes all categories of widows. But here too, lengthy procedures and bureaucracy affect the timely administration of aid. The women end up spending a long time going from one desk to the other in the department.

Nahid Soz, Managing Director of the Women's Development Corporation, a body that grants loans to individuals, confesses that the time taken between submission of a loan application and the actual reimbursement of the loan can go beyond six months.

And the process is, of course, saddled with red-tapism just as it is in the other departments. In her current post for only two months, Soz is now trying to ensure that the whole process is completed in under a month.

Naqash has managed to register some 300 women with a scheme offered by the Handicrafts Department, for which she has had to stand in as guarantor herself. Many more await registration.

At Naqash's office, a quiet old widow, in her mid-60s, pulls out her son's photograph. Her only son, killed by the Indian army. She will get no relief from the gove
rnment; a bank loan is her only hope. Unless the government includes her — and others like her — in SRO 43.

Women's Feature Service