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Indian state chief slammed for lavish festival as thousands shiver in camps

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 10 Jan 2014 15:51 GMT
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Soldiers stand guard on a deserted street during a curfew in Muzaffarnagar in the state of Uttar Pradesh September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer
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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Activists and journalists have criticised the chief minister of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for holding a lavish cultural festival which included performances by Bollywood stars as thousands of people displaced by communal riots languish in close to freezing temperatures in relief camps.

The media, advocacy groups and ordinary Indians on social media sites have accused Akilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party (SP) of being insensitive to the plight of the displaced by holding the multi-million rupee, 15-day event in the village of Saifai which ended on Jan 8.

News channels held televised debates and broadcast pictures of the glitzy event attended by prominent Indian film-stars such as Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit alongside visuals of the displaced people warming themselves around fires out in the open.

"The real culprits are the SP bigwigs who saw nothing wrong in holding such festivals even as children are dying in the cold in the relief camps," the Hindustan Times wrote in its editorial on Friday.

"The money spent on this jamboree could have been better spent on trying to rehabilitate those in camps. It is no one's case that people should not enjoy entertainment but it is another for the state to fritter away money on this when people are suffering so much."

More than 50 people died and over 40,000 were displaced when clashes between Hindus and Muslims erupted in the prosperous sugarcane district of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in early September.

While some have returned to their homes, others remain in makeshift relief camps too fearful to return after seeing neighbours burn down their homes and murder their relatives.

"VERGE OF DEATH"

Aid workers say the relief and rehabilitation provided by the Uttar Pradesh government has been inadequate, citing that 34 children have died in the camps due to the almost freezing temperatures.

Save the Children said in a statement last week that thousands of people - including children, pregnant women and lactating mothers - were being evicted from the camps by the government, adding that some of the children were suffering from pneumonia, diahorrea and "were on the verge of death."

"We urge the government to ensure that these children, mothers and pregnant women along with their families are ensured their entitlement to safety and better living conditions," said Shireen Vakil Miller, Save the Children's director for advocacy and policy.

Yadav on Friday defended the staging of the annual festival saying that his government had done everything possible to help those affected by the riots and that the media was inflating the cost of the event, which he said cost 70 million rupees ($1.1 million).

"The media should apologise to me ... for their reports on Saifai," Yadav told a news conference, describing the event as a part of the state's policy to boost tourism.

"The locals had been preparing for a year. The traders at the Saifai festival are very poor. This event gives them revenue."

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