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Monday, August 24, 2015

Tibetan Settlements in South India: Where Money and Power Dictates

"if your living in a shechak Its all about money pay fine if you miss a meeting, if you miss a prayer meeting, if you miss a lhapso..... or mani...."

The above statement - a Facebook comment on one of my wall post - gave a much-needed spark for the birth of this article. Since I grew up in one of the biggest Tibetan settlements in South India, this statement was so true to me and my family members. I am still living these experiences through my parents, sibling and relatives in the settlement.

Though many residents of these settlements struggle to survive, I have witnessed that overwhelming number of fines and penalties were imposed for non-adherence to shady guidelines, questionable directives and unfair rules and regulations (R&R). These guidelines, directives and R&R mostly come from the Tibetan Settlement Office, Tibetan Cooperative Society, non-governmental organizations, committees such as annual prayer committee and/or camp leaders.

The primary reason for these guidelines, directives or rules and regulations is to make sure that the general public participates or involves in these community building or re-building works such as repair of roads, maintenance of community buildings, construction related to any projects, cleaning of school and hospital campuses, firewood for school kitchen and repair of drinking water pipes.

Often times, fines and penalties were also imposed for non-participation in community hall meetings when a high ranking official from Dharamsala visits the settlement as well as for non-participation in the annual prayer service that stretches for more than a month.

Freedom to practice his/her rights to participate or not participate in these meetings and prayer services are not an option. In these settlements, imposition or dictation of power outplays the importance of individual rights and democratic freedom.

More disturbingly, every household in the settlement are required to help cover the cost of travel and living expenses for individuals traveling to New Delhi or other big cities in India to participate in political demonstration. These protests are largely organized by non-governmental political organization. Residents willingly or unwillingly have to pay for these individual travel expenses to help them participate in a political protest or demonstration.

The question is - for how long, poor residents have to bear these ongoing extortion in the name of whatever-seems-best-fit-description provided by individual holding some kind of power or influence?

(If you are not from Tibetan settlements, let me provide you with a short background of these fines or penalties. As per Central Tibetan Administration's land rules and regulations (simple translation), every member in the household are eligible for housing and land for agricultural purpose. Household members - who were allocated housing and land - are asked to follow these guidelines, directives and R&R.)


As a "permanent solution" to these frequent and ongoing harassment in the name of fines and penalties, several residents opted to return the land and housing allocated to their family members who moved to other countries such as Canada. This request of return is in accordance with CTA's land rules and regulations passed by the Tibetan Parliament in-Exile (see these two snapshots - one above and other below - to read Article 10 and 11 with emphasis on highlighted sections).

However, the reaction from some officials were very disturbing. They asked to return ALL land and housing including family members currently residing in the settlement. Where will these family members go?   This is a perfect example of an abuse of power by certain officials who prefer to suppress the voice of poor as well as CTA's land rules and regulations.

To understand the above para, let me provide an example.  Mr. A lives with his wife Mrs. B, son Mr. C and daughter Ms. D in XYZ Tibetan settlement.  They all received land and housing as per CTA's land rules and regulations.  However, Mrs. B and Mr. C moved and settled in Canada in 2012.  In accordance with the R&R, Mr. A submits a request to return the land and housing of Mrs. B and Mr. C who settled in Canada since 2012.  However, the officials refused to accept the partial return and instead, asked to return ALL land and housing including that of Mr. A and Ms. D.  This will leave Mr. A and Ms. D displaced with nowhere to go or call home. 


The request for land and housing return for those who migrated to other countries is lawful and valid.  It is also logical and reasonable if you look at young men and women leaving these settlements for better jobs in cities or migrating to the West with the hope of economic prosperity. In many household, elders who are not physically capable of participating in many of these compulsory obligations are the only ones left in the settlement. One Facebook comment sums up well, "I have my grandma living in shechak n she has to go to all meeting, mani and work weather it is raining or on a hot sunny day...n let u remind you all mani are mostly held after dark which makes it worse coz most of our elders have eyesight problem.."

When I asked my parents, "Why don't you object to these never-ending rounds of fines and penalties?" Their response in general were, "no one is speaking up." In these settlements, people who speaks up are considered problem makers. I understand why my parents prefer to stay silent; otherwise they may be labelled as rebellious. And if someone speaks up or raises his voice, officials try to shut him up by effectively using His Holiness the Dalai Lama's name. They will make him feel as if you are disrespecting the advice of His Holiness.


How long this practice will go depends on how long these residents will collectively shut their voices. Residents need to understand that "no one" is above the law. And law is created through a process guided by the principle of democracy.

The sustainability of these settlements depend on its residents. If residents are exploited in the guise of fines and penalties, we may soon see Tibetan settlements with only a handful of people who call themselves powerful.

Remember! Money and power will not help sustain these settlements. What will help is RESPECTING the needs and interests of its residents.

If you have any story of social injustice to cover in this blog, feel free to contact me via email or comment below.

Glossary of Tibetan terms
Shechak - Tibetan word for Tibetan settlements or colonies in India/Nepal
Lhapso - A public gathering for prayers
Mani - Buddhist mantra