Reconstruction in Exile

Reconstruction in Exile
by Tsewang Phuntso

Today, after more than four decades in exile, the Tibetan refugee community has managed to rebuild their lives in a completely alien environment with more than 120,000 refugees achieving almost total self-reliance. The majority of the refugees are settled in 54 settlements, comprising of 26 agricultural, 17 agro-industrial and 11 handicraft units, spread throughout India, Nepal and Bhutan. Almost all the settlements are provided with primary and secondary schools, primary health care centers, and cooperative societies. In addition, there are monasteries, nunneries and temples to fulfill the spiritual needs of the people and to preserve Tibetan culture. For the proper management of the refugee community, and more importantly to guide the Tibet struggle for freedom, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has been set up with its headquarters in Dharamsala, 500 kms. north of New Delhi in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. The CTA, over the years, has served as a rallying point around which the dis-spirited but determined refugees could rebuild their lives and future. The Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, recognize the CTA as their sole and legitimate government.

First group of Tibetan bureaucrats who shouldered the reconstruction work in exile

First group of Tibetan bureaucrats who shouldered the reconstruction work in exile

The success of the Tibetan refugee community is attributed to its hardwork, spirit of independence and adaptability. This has enabled the Tibetan refugees to make the best use of humanitarian assistance received from the government and people of India as well as from international aid organizations. Since institutional development is a key to the success of every organization and society, it is not unfair to say that a part of the Tibetan success story should be attributed to the presence and effective functioning of the CTA under the leadership of H.H. the Dalai Lama.

The day-to-day functioning of the CTA is supervised by the Kashag (Cabinet), which is the highest executive body. Its members are elected by the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies for the term of five years. The Kashag executes its policy decision and supervises the administration of the Tibetan refugee community through seven major department.

The Department of Religion and Culture seeks to preserve and promote Tibet’s spiritual and cultural heritage, which is on the verge of extinction in its own homeland. The Department gives back-up supports and services to 189 monasteries and nunneries, with 17,600 monks and nuns.

The Department of Home is responsible for all rehabilitation schemes for Tibetan refugees. The Department’s activities and roles are broadly categorized into four divisions: administration, agriculture, planning and development, and welfare. The agricultural division supervises all the agricultural works in the settlements, including animal husbandry, whereas the planning and development division executes the overall planning of development works in the settlements. The Department of Homes also maintains contact with various international aid agencies and organizations, involved in the rehabilitation work for Tibetan refugees.

The Department of Education is entrusted not only with the responsibility for the education of Tibetan refugee children, but also to work out a system that combines the best of modern education with Tibet’s traditional culture so that the Children can retain their traditional values, and at the same time develop a modern, cosmopolitan outlook on life. The Department currently administers 84 schools in India, Nepal and Bhutan, serving 30,000 children, which form 70 percent of the children in exile. It also provides scholarship for college and university education.

The Department of Health caters to the basic health needs of the Tibetan refugees, running nearly 70 primary health care centers and referral hospitals. It also provides training for medical staff.

The Department of Information and International Relations educates the Tibetan and international public opinion to the political, human rights and environmental conditions in Tibet. It also supervises the work of the Offices of Tibet in 13 countries. These offices function as the embassies of the CTA and are based in New Delhi, Kathmandu, Tokyo, Taipei, Canberra, Pretoria, London, Paris, Brussels, Budapest, Geneva, Moscow, and New York.

The Department of Finance formulates annual budget of the CTA and generates revenues to run general administration of CTA.

The Department of Security ensures the security of H.H. the Dalai Lama and also monitors the developments in occupied-Tibet. Besides, the Department runs a Reception Center in Kathmandu, New Delhi and Dharamsala to cater to the needs of new refugees arriving from Tibet.

The CTA also has three independent bodies: Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Audit Office. The Election Commission is responsible for conducting and oversea elections of the members of the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies and Kashag. The Public Service Commission is responsible for recruitment, training and appointment of the civil servants of the CTA. The Audit Office is responsible for auditing the accounts of all the CTA departments and its subsidiaries.

The Root of the Tibetan Community in Exile

Soon after the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India on 17 March 1959, there had been a steady flow of Tibetan refugees, which ultimately turned into a mass exodus. By the end of June 1959 almost 20,000 Tibetans had fled their homeland, the first of repeated waves of exodus, the number eventually reached 85,000. While some refugees managed to bring their families, many had to flee alone, leaving their families behind. Similarly, while some managed to survive the ordeal of difficult journey over the Himalayas, many, particularly old and young people, lost their lives on the way. When they arrived in India, most of the refugees were starving or wounded, ill from the low altitude, and stunned by a profound cultural shock of descending to an alien world. The Dalai Lama’s immediate concern then was the survival problem of refugees, particularly the fate and future of young children. In his autobiography, My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama wrote: “it is even harder for children than for adults to be uprooted and taken suddenly to an entirely different environment, and many of them died in the early days from the change of food and climate. We had to do something drastic to preserve their health–and their education was also a matter of great importance.”

On 25 April 1959, the Dalai lama called an emergency meeting of the few senior Tibetan officials who had accompanied him from Tibet, and those who had arrived earlier in India, to discuss the situation and plan for the reconstruction in exile. The meeting was held in Mussoorie, a beautiful hill station in the north Indian district of Dehradun, which served as the Dalai Lama’s initial headquarters. The discussion at the meeting also greatly influenced by the advice of the Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who had called on the Dalai Lama at his residence in Mussoorie the day before. His advice to the Dalai Lama was to “rest and consider things well without being hasty.” The meeting identified few areas of concentration: rehabilitation of the Tibetan refugees, education of the Tibetan children, preservation of the Tibetan culture and identity, gathering and disseminating information regarding Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet, pursuing the Tibetan questions at the United Nations, and preserving and promoting unity among the Tibetan refugee community.

Rehabilitation of the refugees

In the beginning, two large transit camps were set up in consultation with the Government of India: one at Missamari, located ten miles from Tezpur in the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh; the other at Buxa Duar, a former British prisoner-of-war camp situated near the Bhutanese border in West Bengal. Within a few weeks after the setting up the camps, 6,000 refugees arrived at Missamari and 1,000 at Buxa Duar. As the camps could accommodate not more than 9,000 persons between themselves, simultaneous efforts were made to disperse the refugees for road building works in the cooler regions of North India to prevent fatalities due to intense heat, overcrowding, and epidemic of amoebic dysentery. The first batch of 3,394 people was sent for roadwork in Sikkim in September 1959 in several groups.

Agricultural based Settlements

The Dalai Lama’s vision of exile society took root in his new headquarters, an abandoned British hill station called Dharamsala. On 29 April 1960, after a little more than a year’s stay, the Dalai Lama moved to his new headquarters from Mussoorie. In Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama revitalized his small administration in exile and called a special meeting of the people’s deputies and staff members on 2 September 1960 to formulate new strategy and plan. As a part of the new plan, he established a bureau (now known as Bureau of H.H. the Dalai Lama) in New Delhi to serve as the Tibetan link with the Indian Government and various international relief agencies that were coming to the refugees’ aid. Similarly, the Office of Tibet in New York was also set up in 1964 to raise the issue of Tibet at the United Nations and to disseminate information on Tibetans inside and outside Tibet.

His Holiness personally supervising the initial stage of rehabilitation work

His Holiness personally supervising the initial stage of rehabilitation work

Rehabilitation, however, was the immediate task at hand. Although the roadwork had provided the much-needed temporary employment for the refugees, it turned out to be not only dangerous, but also hard. The migratory and unsettled nature of the roadwork proved to be extremely hard, particularly on the children and old people. Apart from this, many road-workers suffered from tuberculosis and other communicable diseases due to lack of nutrition and sanitation, compounded by hard labor.

As such, the Dalai Lama approached Prime Minister Nehru for assistance for the permanent rehabilitation of the refugees. Nehru, on his part, canvassed the State Governments for vacant countryside for the purpose. Karnataka State (in South India) immediately responded, offering initially 3,000 acres of uninhabited stretch of jungle in gently rolling hills 52 miles west of Mysore City, situated at the altitude of 2,6000 ft. above sea level. It agreed to accept initially 3,000 Tibetan refugees and provide a grant of four million Indian rupees to execute the rehabilitation project.

Soon after this, the first Tibetan agricultural settlement was set up in the middle of December 1960 at Bylakuppe, accommodating a total of 3,217 Tibetan refugees by the end of 1965. For administrative reasons, the settlement was divided into six camps, each with 500 acres. In the first few years, the settlers engaged in reclaiming land, digging wells, and constructing houses, during which they were paid daily wages and given regular rations. The settlers were divided into artificial families of five people, relatives or not, and each family was given five acres of agricultural land. They were accommodated in the three-room brick-walled, tile-roofed single story house, built on a 500-sq. ft., part of which also served as their kitchen garden.

A cooperative society was set up in 1961 and later formally registered. The cooperative society procured and advanced seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides; marketed agricultural produce collectively; and provided common services such as tractors, trucks, and warehousing. Besides, the cooperative society later played crucial role in managing carpet weaving centers, flour mills, poultry farms and other ventures such as retail outlets in the settlements. In the same year, a school was opened in the settlement. When the Bylakuppee settlement was first started, a small dispensary was set up in a tent to cater to the emergency medical needs of the refugees. Later in 1964, a special complex of concrete houses was built with assistance from foreign organizations to accommodate a dispensary with inpatient facilities.

For the first five years, the settlers cultivated cotton, tobacco, rice, millet, paddy, lentils and oilseeds, all of which failed miserably. Farming in South India was so different from Tibet’s unique high-altitude agronomy that many settlers became totally discouraged and helpless. However, the agony of the repeated crop-failure was solved in 1965, when a Swiss technical adviser, in consultation with the Agriculture University of Bangalore, conducted soil tests and also tested the yields of bullock-ploughed and tractor-ploughed fields. This test resulted in the cultivation of maize crop instead of cotton, tobacco, and other crops and also replacement of bullock plows by tractor plows. The new crop and methods proved so successful that, by the end of 1966, the settlement became self-supporting.

Bylakuppe settlement had served as a model for planning other agriculture based settlements later. By mid-seventies, 26 agricultural-based settlements were established in India, Nepal and Bhutan, accommodating a majority of the Tibetan refugees.

Agro-Industrial Settlements:

It was apparent that it was not viable to rehabilitate all the refugees in agriculture-based settlements. Not only was it hard to find relatively large tracts of land, it was also not practical to rehabilitate all the refugees in agriculture-based settlements. Many of the refugees were traditionally nomads and traders, and had no idea of farming. With this in view and also to expedite the process of rehabilitation, it was found necessary to seek other avenues of resettlement.

Thus, a plan was made to rehabilitate many of the refugees in small-scale industries. To facilitate this, the Tibetan Industrial Rehabilitation Society (TIRS) was established in October 1965, with its headquarters in New Delhi. For the next three years, the TIRS launched several small industrial projects. These included woolen mill at Bir, tea estate in Bir and Chauntra, Tibetan crafts at Bejnath, limestone quarry at Kumrao, hydrated lime plant at Sataun, fiberglass factory at Poanta Sahib, and handicraft center in Puruwala. These projects accommodated more than 4,000 refugees. These projects were meant not only to provide adequate employment opportunities to the inmates, but also skills in different trades. In each industrial project, school and health care facilities were provided by the TIRS with funds raised from foreign agencies. Besides, the TIRS established a Himalayan Marketing Society, based in New Delhi, to market the produce of these settlements. However, many of these industrial efforts failed due to lack of technical and managerial skills. The majority of the industrial settlements gradually began to depend more on traditional carpet weaving, roadwork in summer, and woolen garment trade in Indian towns and cities in winter.

Handicraft-based Settlements:

Over the centuries, Tibet had shared intimate cultural and trade relationship with its neighboring countries. Through these interactions resulted in the development of many traditional crafts in Tibet. The traditional crafts included metal work, woodcraft, clay modeling, appliqué work, thangka painting, hand-made paper, leather work, woolen cloth and carpet weaving, etc. Although there were no major institutes in the traditional society to promote these trades, these arts and crafts were practiced in individual households and the products were sold out locally, or through traders to different part of Tibet.

When the Tibetan refugees came into exile in early 1960s, some of the Tibetan craftsmen settled in Kalimpong, traditional Tibetan trading post in the North India, and others settled temporarily in Darjeeling and Nepal. Thus, with hope of preserving and promoting the traditional Tibetan crafts as well as to provide employment options for the refugees, the CTA, in consultation with the Government of India, set up several handicraft-based settlements as a part of rehabilitation scheme.

The first handicraft-based settlement was set up on a four-acre estate in Darjeeling in October 1959. The 13th Dalai Lama, during his exile from Tibet in 1910-11, had used the site as his temporary residence and therefore, has a special sentimental value for the Tibetans. The settlement or center provided shelter and employment for 450 people. Education and medical needs of the inmates were also taken care of. Besides, the center also ran old people’s home and a crèche for small children. The center’s produce, such as carpets, woolen sweaters, Tibetan women’s aprons, wood carved decoration items, wooden toys, leather goods, etc were marketed locally as well as abroad with the help of aid agencies. Encouraged by the success of the first handicraft-based settlement, other similar settlements or centers were set up in the following years. These included the handicraft center in Dalhousie, Dharamsala, Kalimpong, Simla, Clement Town, Rajpur, and Dehradun–all in India. Similar settlements were also set up in Nepal. In these handicraft-based settlements, cooperative units were established to procure raw materials and market produce. While the cooperatives marketed the settlement’s produce both in India and abroad, the settlers engaged also in individual trade of sweaters–knitted initially by themselves, but later bought from the factories in Ludhiana City in Punjab, India–to supplement their income. Each winter they set up makeshift bamboo-walled and plastic-topped stalls on the sidewalks of bazaars and marketplaces all across India. By the later half of the sixties, sweater selling became the supplementary trade of the majority of Tibetan refugees.

By 1980, only 30,000 Tibetan refugees remained on road construction work. By 1992, a total of 52, 500 people were rehabilitated in the agricultural settlements, 7,700 in Agro-Industrial settlements, and 6,400 in handicraft-based settlements, and 39,800 refugee remained outside the organized units, earning livelihood in petty private enterprises or in the Indian service industries.

New Challenges:

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the end of the Cultural Revolution in China and Tibet resulted in opening China to the outside world. This dramatic change also led to the opening of Tibet and the first-post 1959 contact between Beijing and Dharamsala, which took place in March 1979. Many Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, took the advantage of the situation to undertake the arduous cross-Himalayan journey to visit their family members and relatives. Many families met for the first time after two decades of separation. With the passage of time, a steady stream of new refugees from Tibet came to seek asylum in India and Nepal.

From 1987 to 1994, Tibet was rocked by a series of pro-independence demonstrations. The Chinese authorities reacted by escalating the machinery of repression, especially against those involved in demonstration. This made life in Tibet all the more difficult, resulting in a mammoth increase in the flow of refugees. Between 1986-1996, some 18,700 refugees arrived in India and Nepal. The situation became still worse after 1994 when the Chinese government introduced harsher policy to deal with the Tibetan nationalism in Tibet.

In order to cater to the needs of these new refugees, the CTA opened a Reception Center in Dharamsala in 1990. Later, its branches were opened in Kathmandu and Delhi. While the Kathmandu Reception Center is supported jointly by the UNHCR and CTA, the centers in Dharamsala and Delhi are funded by the CTA with a support from the United States’ Government. The rehabilitation of the children below the age of 18 and monks and nuns is comparatively easier as the children can be sent to existing boarding schools and the monks and nuns to the monasteries and nunneries in India. The rehabilitation of adult refugees is problematic. This is because most of the adult new refugees are unskilled and most of the existing settlements are overcrowded. As such, the CTA opened a special Adult Education Center in the outskirts of Dharamsala in 1993 to provide vocational and language training to the new refugees.

Review and Redesigning of the Rehabilitation Scheme

Over the years, the rehabilitation scene had changed considerably. The landholdings in the settlements have shrunken with the natural growth in the population and a new generation of educated and skilled population has thrown new opportunities and challenges. This requires new indepth appraisal of the on-going rehabilitation work in order to chart a new course for the future. A senior Indian official said that the problem of Tibetan refugees was basically a problem of three generations: the generation who came as refugees, the generation born in India and the generation that was still young. This posed peculiar problems of rehabilitation and reconstruction. He said, “While the problems are known, sometimes the answers are difficult to find. Or even if we know the answers, sometimes implementation is difficult.”

In view of this situation, a joint (New Delhi and Dharamsala) high-level workshop (or conference) was organized in New Delhi in October 1986 to review the situation and restructure the scheme. At the conference, the then Indian Home Minister, Mr. Buta Singh, emphasized the need for more diversification to target the needs of the second generation and timely execution of the rehabilitation programs both by the respective Indian State Governments and the Tibetans. An Indian expert on small-scale industries, said, “The present generation of Tibetan refugees having become aware that their traditional vacations are no longer going to help them in the long run, small-scale industries is an area of great potential which is yet to be introduced to this group of beneficiaries.”

The conference, which was participated by the officials of the concerned Ministries of the Government of India, State Governments, and Tibetan officials, discussed in details various issues ranging from water supply and roads in the settlement to working capital for the cooperative societies, rehabilitation of additional refugees, education for children, acquisition of immovable property by Tibetan refugees, etc. The Chief of the World Bank Mission, who also participated in the conference, emphasized the importance of maintaining cohesiveness of the community with physical proximity as this, he said, would help the Tibetan refugees to preserve their culture and identity in exile. The UNHCR Representative assured that his agency would continue to provide “legal protection” to the Tibetan refugees, though “material assistance” ended in 1975 as the Government of India and UNHCR considered that the Tibetan refugees in India were self-sufficient economically.

In view of the above difficulties and challenges, efforts have been made since then to redesign and diversity the rehabilitation scheme. The Planning Council was instituted in 1988 to improve the use of CTA’s human, physical and financial resources in the development of the refugee community. The Council was instrumental in establishing the Handicraft Development Board and the Tibetan Computer Resource Centers, and introducing the concept of micro-enterprises and micro-credit in the community. Efforts were made to improve communication and coordination among various sectors of the CTA, both in Dharamsala and peripheral settlements. Recently, the Planning Council has conducted a detailed demographic survey of the Tibetan refugee community and random sampling survey of the socio-economic status of the community. These studies will definitely be of great use for the proper planning of the development initiatives in the community.

In addition, the Department of Home has also taken more aggressive approach recently in this direction and has launched the “second phase of the rehabilitation and reconstruction work” by mechanizing and diversifying the agricultural methods and by introducing micro-enterprises in the settlements.