Despite SC intervention, conditions of women's shelters and old-age homes remain a cause for concern in Bundelkhand

The horror that was housed in the guise of shelter in the Deoria shelter home – the 24 girls who were finally rescued after repeated sexual abuse – was followed almost soon after with news of 26 missing women from two shelters in Pratapgarh, and then another 27 from a shelter in Hardoi. With a national furore over the status of shelters for at-risk youth and women, the Supreme Court got involved, demanding consistent data from relevant ministries, and media gunned its gaze towards shelter homes, seeking data and reports.

In August this year, the Supreme Court termed the findings of the National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights (NCPCR)’s survey of 2874 childrens’ homes “chilling”. One highlight of the study, stating that only 54 of the homes met the necessary standards of operation, was particularly dismal, but there was more. Out of the 185 shelters that were audited, only 19 maintained the necessary records of the shelter residents, and the NCPCR also stated that Uttar Pradesh (UP) was one of the nine states in the country that did not allow the body to conduct the survey, immediately stoking not only worry about the status of shelters in UP, but also the state’s alleged complicity in their ill-functioning. The UP Women and Child Welfare Ministry, however, recognised a total of 28 women’s homes in the state that were running under various government schemes.

Armed with lack of information – a reporter’s ammunition – in the wake of a strong lack of political drive, we decided to set out on our own audit, seeking contacts and interviews via a carefully built network in Bundelkahnd.

The quest took us to the currently inactive Guddi Swadhar Ashram in Chitrakoot district, which first opened its doors to women in need in 1997. “This was a home for any women oppressed by society,” we were informed by Shrikant Dwivedi, the founder of the ashram. “The women who came to us come because of fears that they weren’t being allowed to go to school, or leave their home, or had to take care of their ageing parents.” Dwivedi spoke with conviction about  social service, a red tika prominent on his forehead. But when we sought out former residents, we encountered not only opposing narratives, but also willfully disfigured ones.  “We must have been 13 years old,” Akanksha reminisced, though not fondly, “Whenever a government official would come to visit, we’d be dressed in saris and presented to him. It was like being on display.” When asked to elaborate on what the point of this activity was, she explained, “It was to show how very poor we were; how we’d been married off as children, and were victims of dowry.” The ashram’s administration would also stress on the education of girls, Akanksha added, even though, according to her, it was never offered to her or any of the other girls who stayed there.

The Swadhar Greh scheme was last updated in 2001 to provide safe shelter to women deserted without social or economic support – usually survivors of domestic violence and/or other forms of exploitation. The parade of adolescent girls made to look older in saris would allow the ashram to project their work as social service, how they were indeed providing shelter to those exploited and abandoned.

“There were only 40 shelters in all of UP,” claimed a proud Dwivedi, “After inspection, only 13 were considered satisfactory and mine was one of them.” However, according to the 2017 data, Guddi was but one of the 72 Swadhar Grehs in the state, and one of 551 in the country, with Uttar Pradesh boasting of being home to the third highest number of shelters. But 40 or 72 – the difference seems marginal when compared to the state’s population, which is upwards of 20 crore.

Dwivedi was irritated when asked to comment on public perception of shelters, especially in the light of the national coverage of the Deoria and Muzaffarnagar cases, “They think all people who run homes are scoundrels. Sometimes I read news on Facebook with headlines like ‘1, 04, 000 shelters shut down in UP’ But please, these are not real numbers.”

The Swadhar Greh scheme document outlines a detailed strategy to counter possible thievery and corruption, across district, state and national level monitoring programmes. Indicators include infrastructure (number of beds), food production and provision, provision of toiletries, and case management of beneficiaries. While Dwivedi expressly maintained that the shelter paid for all living expenses, including food, another previous resident of the ashram, Ranju questioned the quality of life that was on offer. “There were never any beds,” she said, “Only when it was time for an inspection did they throw some bedding on charpais and called them beds.” On the system of meals too, Ranju expressed dissatisfaction, “There used to be one glass of dal and one jug of rice — on the days when there were more girls, maybe one and a half, two jugs of rice.” Was it enough? Ranju shrugged, “Sometimes it was; mostly it wasn’t. We had to stay hungry a lot.”

Ranju had stories about fudging of records too, “During inspections, the ashram people would get some girls from the neighbourhood to come to the shelter to pass them off as girls who lived there,” said Ranju. Akanksha echoed, “The inspectors used to check our files in every visit. So they would create fake records and put photos of the neighbourhood girls on them. This was a very common practice.”

The scheme allows for up to Rs 12,86,000 in remuneration of recurring expenses (rent, food, recreational activities) every year for every 30 residents that a shelter houses. It isn’t hard to see how manipulating the system — like showing a higher number of girls than were actually present — could wield considerable profits.

One of the common strategies built into rehabilitating women, at least on paper, is to provide them with education and vocational skills training. And though Dwivedi vaguely claimed that an education was provided to “those girls who wanted to be educated,” Ranju had a different version, “They didn’t let us go study. We had to fight for it.” When asked why she never complained, her response was pat, “The warden ran a tight ship, her word was law. What could we have said?”

The Guddi Swadhar Ashram passed every inspection from 1997 until 2016, when it was finally shut down — though the reasons for this are unknown. Dwivedi too was unresponsive.

The system does not bode well for senior citizens in UP either, another vulnerable populace of the state. “Everything is just fine,” said Jagiya, a resident of Vriddh Jan Ashram, an old age home in Chitrakoot, albeit unconvincingly, as she added, “I just pray, take God’s name and accept what I get.”

The issue of the rising population of senior citizens is now being compounded with the rise in the decrease in elder care by their children and the lack of care facilities. Addressing that, the National Policy on Senior Citizens, 2011 ambitiously states: ‘States will set up homes with assisted living facilities for abandoned senior citizens in every district of the country, and there will be adequate budgetary support'. Earlier this year, UP government informed the Supreme Court that old-age homes in all of its 75 districts were operational, with facilities like medicine, food and clothes provided to those residing there. Additionally, the claim was made that they were distributing Rs 400 per month to senior citizens according to the old-age pension scheme.

Darbari, another resident at the Vriddh Jan Ashram had told us about buying Nirma powder with the 100 bucks he gets every month, “We do get some detergent, and I do use it, but then it runs out. Then we need to spend our own money on it.”

Running away from old age homes is a common enough occurrence, too, in Bundelkhand. In Mahoba, we hear out Darbari, who came back to his house after spending only two months at a shelter. He spoke of being mightily disillusioned, “They told us they’d give us a wheelchair if we were physically disabled, a walking stick. They made a lot of promises, but there were no facilities. That’s why I ran away.”

 

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

 

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Updated Date: Dec 04, 2018 17:36:13 IST