The issue of housing for Tibetan exiles in India persists as a complex challenge, despite concerted efforts from multiple stakeholders, including the Indian government, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), and associated religious leaders. While the larger chunk of Tibetan exiles in India have been accommodated in established and compact settlements, a number of Tibetan exiles still linger in a limbo of extended uncertainty. The responsibility to help those who are without housing facilities rests with the exile Tibetan government, known officially as the Central Tibetan Administration. However, the weight of blame does not rest entirely on the administration.
The affected group notably include newly arrived Tibetans and members of scattered Tibetan settlements, who, despite arriving early in India, do not have homes of their own. This disparity in housing provision stands stark against the backdrop of 35 established Tibetan settlements in India, 12 in Nepal, and 7 in Bhutan, which serve as vital anchors of the community.
History and present initiatives
The genesis of the housing issue can be traced back to the aftermath of China’s occupation of Tibet in 1959, compelling over 80,000 Tibetans to seek refuge outside Tibet. The Dalai Lama and the Government in exile took on the arduous task of rehabilitating these displaced refugees. Tibetan refugee settlements were established in collaboration with India, Nepal, and Bhutan, with the aim to preserve Tibetan socio-cultural values within cohesive communities.
Despite the establishment of these settlements, a considerable number of Tibetans continue to live outside these established communities, presenting a persistent challenge. To address this disparity, the Department of Home, Central Tibetan Administration, under the 16th Kashag, launched the “Building Back Compact Communities” (BBCC) project, also known as “Shipoe Leyshi” in Tibetan.
The primary objective of this initiative is to provide housing facilities to Tibetan exiles lacking permanent residences, thereby fostering a sense of belonging and stability within the diaspora. The last administration led by former President Dr. Lobsang Sangay has also undertaken projects to provide housing, in new compact communities in Bir, Bylakuppe, Dickyiling where many households were provided housing. Successive administrations over the course of the last few decades have also pushed forward with their own initiatives to solve the problem of housing.
The current administration, in an official notice from the Department of Home on October 18, 2023, revealed that 655 households, primarily comprising recently arrived Tibetans from Tibet, applied for housing allotment. Additionally, a subsequent notification on April 28, 2023, urged homeless Tibetan households to register, resulting in 992 new household names, including 354 newly arrived Tibetan households and 638 scattered Tibetan households. As of now, a total of 1,647 households have registered for the project.
The plan ahead
The 1,647 households consist of Tibetan exiles from various locations across India, including Banglore, Mundgod, Lugsam, Kollegal, Ladakh, Tengang, Shillong, Bir Dege, Bir BTS, Shimla, Dharamshala, Kullu, Mandi, Sunder Nagar, Rewalsar, Gangtok, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sonada, Dehradun, Harbertpur, and Hunsur, encompassing 2,661 family members.
The CTA plans to rehabilitate these households by carving out chunks of land in existing Tibetan settlements of Odisha (Phuntsokling), Mainpat in Chhattisgarh state (Phendheling), and in Mundgod (Doeguling), Bylakuppe (Chokor), Hunsur (Rabgyaling), Kollegal (Dhondenling), Bylakuppe (Lugsum Samdupling), Bylakuppe (DickiLarsoe) in South Indian states of Karnataka. They were given the deadline of November 10 to complete the form and select at least two preferred settlements as options from the lot.
Upon finalizing the preferred choice of settlements, the CTA will provide a plot of land as well as financial assistance to construct the houses. Families choosing Mundgod (Doeguling) and Bylakuppe (Dicki Larsoe) will receive 5 lakh rupees from the CTA, while those opting for Hunsur (Rabgyaling) and Kollegal (Dhondenling) will receive 7.5 lakh rupees. Those choosing Bylakuppe (Lugsam Samdupling) will receive 2.5 lakh rupees, and families selecting Odisha (Phuntsokling) and Mainpat in Chhattisgarh state (Phendheling) will have the entire houses built for them by the CTA.
Deputy Secretary of the Department of Home, Ngudup Woeser, speaking to Phayul revealed that the project began some time ago. However, limited participation in the form-filling stage has slowed the project’s progress and that the project is currently stuck in its early stages. When the households finalize their preferred settlement choices, the department will then coordinate with settlements to identify available land in those settlements. The entire project is expected to take between 2 to 4 years.
This initiative aligns with the incumbent Sikyong Penpa Tsering’s speech in Shimla on May 11, 2023, where he highlighted that the growing trend of migration of young Tibetans from India to foreign countries, has led to a decline in school enrollment and settlement population. The present Kashag plans to revitalize settlements and schools by resettling the people who lack permanent residence in areas with available land and housing.
President Tsering said that his project serves two purposes; one of providing housing to the houseless Tibetans but also strengthening the existing Tibetan settlements and repopulating the settlements which have been depleted by varying factors like migration to the west, declining birth rate as well as little to no new refugees from Tibet.
Voices from the ground
The ongoing project by the current administration as well as those initiated by the previous administration under former President Dr. Lobsang Sangay is not immune to criticism, with questions over viability, practicality and quality of finished projects.
Challenges of livelihood is a persistent talking point in the larger context of the relocation project. Phuntsok, a third-generation resident of Rangzen Camp in Shimla, shared his concerns about the proposed relocation project impacting the approximately 60 households in his scattered Tibetan settlement in Shimla. The community originally settled in the region decades ago when Tibetan refugees were involved in road construction for a livelihood and later set up small businesses along the encampment . Phuntsok emphasized the economic challenges that they would face if they were to relocate to the new settlements, as the families in their camp are currently engaged in business activities in Shimla during the summer.
He explained that the Himachal government had instructed them to vacate the land, promising an alternative plot in Shimla. Despite their legal stay-order, Phuntsok expressed confusion about the future, questioning whether they would have the opportunity to register for housing once the Himachal government fulfils its commitment to allot plots near Shimla, especially if they participate in the housing scheme under the Tibetan government.
CTA official Ngudup Woeser told Phayul that efforts by the administration to acquire land for households in legally contested areas like Shimla, Dharamshala, among others have not been successful and that the department cannot assist individuals who wish to remain in these contested areas. The President of the CTA, Penpa Tsering has said on several occasions that houseless Tibetans can avail the benefits of housing while also being engaged in businesses and livelihoods elsewhere so that households can use the housing during the time when they are not engaged in their seasonal businesses. He stressed that his administration will exercise “leniency” in that regard, in contrast to his predecessor.
Another grievance towards the project is the size of the houses, particularly those allotted in the projects initiated by the previous Kashag. Dekyi Yangzom, leader of newly inaugurated Mundgod Camp 10, a project that was initiated by the previous administration and completed a few months ago, told Phayul that the problems are faced by the small families due to the size of the houses. The housing for bigger families consisting of more than two family members is spacious and good but the housing for childless families and single people are small, with only one room, kitchen and bathroom. Out of 40 houses, 24 are 300 sq. ft, which were distributed to a single person or a family with two members, whereas the remaining 16 are 600 sq. ft, which were distributed to families with more than two members.
She, however, added that we are grateful to the Tibetan government for allotting them the houses but said that with the money spent on that scale, the finished product could have been more user-friendly in terms of space. Questions however linger over whether expectations for more spacious and better housing are legitimate or overly expectant of the administration whose capability to deploy funds are dependent on availability of funds as well as the approval of the parliament.
What is the way forward?
The Project “Building Back Compact Communities” to provide land and housing to houseless households has a host of challenges primarily stemming from the absence of common ground between the CTA and the beneficiaries. The beneficiaries must have realistic expectations from the administration on what help the CTA can provide, considering the limited funds as well as the number of people seeking help. Since government projects are for the masses, each unit cannot be tailor fitted to the needs of individuals.
On the administration’s part, the key agenda should be scoping the ground realities and understanding the needs of the beneficiaries so that the funds deployed translate into fulfilling the aspiration of the target group, and avoiding grievances in the future. Projects must be drafted in consultation with stakeholders, especially when it is for the rehabilitation of the mass.