13 rupees a year

Let me ask you a riddle. What is the government budgetary allocation for a mental patient? You would never guess! Its is thirteen rupees a year! Yes13 rupees a year is the budgetary allocation for a mental health patient in India. This startling and absurd statistic was revealed in a heart wrenching article entitled Damned lives and Statistics. I urge you to read it. You will be stunned beyond words. But let me share some stats: there are 100 million people in India who suffer from some form of mental illness. Of these 10 million need hospitalisation. There are only 43 government mental hospitals all in a pitiable state. There are only 4000 psychiatrists and 70% of them work in the private sector in urban areas. I leave you to do the maths and work out the absurd and nonsensical figures.

It does not stop there. Here is another riddle. How do the state run mental hospitals deal with body lice? Answer: they strip the patient and spray her with insecticides meant to kill cockroaches. The conditions of mental hospitals are indescribable. Any adjective I can think falls short of the reality. Patients live in inhuman and jail like conditions, locked in hot and dark cells, with stinking toilets and unpalatable food. In some institutions they are even fettered.  Some cosmetic changes have been done and the exterior may look nice, but inside it is a living hell. And to crown it all funds that come to the hospital for food, clothing and mattresses are siphoned off by the officials. They even take home the bedspreads and curtains. A horror story but sadly a real one.

Mental patients need care and understanding. They need therapies and counselling. They need enabling environments to help them heal and reintegrate normal life. In the conditions prevalent today they are sure to wither away.

The alternatives are no better. Many mental patients are taken to faith healers. They are chained, caned, smeared with chili or branded with hot coins. All this to exorcise the demon believed to possess them. In some cases they are dumped by families in faraway places in illegal asylums where they are abused and tortured and even used in organ trading. And yet most of these poor souls can be treated with proper medication and psychological support. The fact that the state does not care for them is criminal to say the least.

Private psychiatric care is exorbitant and only a few can afford it. Some of the institutions can cost up to 5000 rs a day. This is where the rich dump their addict child who has become an embarrassment! For them a lac fifty thousand is chicken feed I guess. For those who do not have the money the options are few. I was horrified when a friend told me the story of a disabled woman who had been hidden by her family till the day she died. My friend lives in a posh colony in Delhi and this poor woman lived in the house opposite hers. She had never known that her neighbours had a disabled relative.

Mental patients may need hospitalisation and treatment but this is only short term in most cases and the patient can easily get back to normal life. I recently had to admit a student in a psychiatric facility – one of the only place that is affordable – and was shocked to hear that many patients were simply abandoned by their families and had spent not months but years away from their homes in spite of being cured. This how much we care for our very own if they happen to be mentally challenged.

But even those who care deeply for their challenged ones face huge problems.I recently bumped into a friend who has a 17 year old autistic son. She is an ace parent and has done everything she could and more for her child. Now the boy turns 18 next year and the institution where he studies does not take children after their eighteenth birthday. Now my friend knows that this young man cannot spend the rest of his life at home and needs to be in an enabling environment which will allow him to progress. Sadly there are very few options and long waiting lists. She is a working woman and needs to find a solution. She candidly asked whether I would open a day care centre for people like her son. I wish I could!

The article and the words of my friend stirred many thoughts that I had been trying to shut off. What would happen to my bunch of challenged souls. Planet Why fell off the map. And yet Planet Why was what would have kept the Munnas and Radhas, the Anjalis and Champas smiling all the way to their golden years. Now their morrows are tenuous and depend on my ability to secure them. I cannot begin to imagine any one of them in a state run facility or rejected by their families. It cannot happen. I pray for a miracle and hold on to the Planet Why dream. Will someone hear my silent prayer.

Time to launch Project Y

The latest buzz across the country seems to be Bollywood star Amir Khan’s latest talk show Satyamev Jayate. The first episode titled daughters are precious took on the issue of female foeticide. I guess it was, as many have held, a safe bet. Female feticide is an issue that does move one and all, or so one would want to believe. At least the programme would get women on his side! I did not watch the show when it was aired but saw it on line. Though one got to know some startling facts the most shocking one being that female infanticide was started as a government scheme in the 1970s, during the population explosion in India, the show failed to move me. I for one do not get starry eyed in front of super stars! True we were treated to all the pathos imaginable: heart wrenching stories of women who had born the brunt of the terrible practice, even a woman who had been bitten repeatedly by her husband, startling statistics, bits and pieces of sting operations and needless to say the tears shed by both the audience and the anchor.

The entire show was, unfortunately aimed at bashing different sections of the population: the perpetrators be it the family or the medical practitioners, the indifferent or even collusive  administration, the antagonistic judge and so on. Each story was accompanied by the required exclamations of surprise or horror. We were also introduced by satellite link to a bunch of almost middle age lads from a village in a state known for its skewed sex ratio who merrily informed us that they were bachelors for want of women to marry. The motley band seemed more kicked by being on a reality show then by the seriousness of the issue. But some interviews with local activists brought us back on course as they shared statistics, the practise of bride import and above all the terrible plight of these ‘foreign’ women that scarily resembled the plight of the young protagonist of Matrubhoomi who is married to one but shared by all brothers in a terrifying reinterpretation of the Mahabharat. What is scary is that a film set in 2050 tells the story of what is happening today! It is a must watch!

The show did have its required effect if we are to believe the hundreds of thousands of SMSses. The pulse of the India audience was tickled pink as the show was high on emotional drama. And the aftermath was expected with Amir Khan being labelled the India Oprah (sic) and satyamev jayate a movement! A little OTT in my humble opinion. The show ended with a pledge to take up the issue of female foeticide in the state where a sting operation had been undertaken against doctors who are a party to sex determination. At the time of writing these words the Bollywood star had met the political one to set things right. I presume it means booking the medical perpetrators caught on camera.

But let me get back on track as this post is not meant to be an eulogy or attack of the new kid on the TV block. What prompted me to write this post was to share my take on the abhorrent practice of female foeticide and my humble suggestions. Bashing anyone will not stop female foeticide. Dredging facts and figures will again not get anyone to change mindsets. Appeals and projects to ‘save the girl child’ have and will remain unheard. Th bottom line is quite different and the question one has to ask one’s self is why are girls unwanted. The answer is simple: they are a financial burden mostly because of exorbitant marriages. Reason gets clouded by the burden of costly nuptials. All else is forgotten. That they are potential wives, mothers strangely becomes secondary. And to make matter worse, by some absurd interpretation of scientific laws, sex determination gets reinterpreted to suit a patriarchal society and the woman is made to bear the unfair and unsubstantiated burden of being responsible for ‘making’ girls. A girl is unwanted in our land but there is also another side to this dark coin: the same girl, if she survives and gets married will be punished in all sorts of manner if she gives birth to a girl. In India across the social board it is believed that women determine the sex of the child. The show’s anchor did make a en passant remark on sex determination but it was lost in emotion.

So let us try and take it from the top. We in India  a country where women are worshipped as Goddesses by one and all do not want to have daughters. Seems strange doesn’t it? Yet we, rich or poor, literate or illiterate, dislike daughters so much that we are prepared to kill them in the womb, throw them in drains and rubbish bins, leave them in hospitals or dump them in the cradle of orphanages, and even kill them. We punish there mothers in every way imaginable from subtle taunts to murder. If we do decide to raise them, we give them minimum care: less food then their brothers, less medical care, cheaper of no education. From the time a girl child is born she is labelled paraya dhan

So it all points out to two issues: the marriage expenses and the sex determination. One is social, the other scientific. And the need of the moment is to address the two in an empowering manner. True that many want a boy in a patriarchal society boys are preferred and there is always the matter of carrying on the name etc. Quite frankly it works with kings and nobles but how important it is in a family that can barely survive is a matter of opinion. But the sense of false pride remains and is evident in the way the birth of a son is celebrated in the poorest of homes. The girl on the other hand is often welcome by wails and long faces.

To set things right it is important to try and free the woman from the weighty and unfair burden of being held responsible for the sex of the child. The XY chromosome story needs to be told. It needs to be told to one and all in wide ranging campaigns on the scale of family planning ones and polio eradication ones. I personally feel that it should be told in a way that empowers men. Wow how great you guys are, you have the power to decide the sex of the child. You must take ownership of this scientific reality, this gift God has given you, what incredible power. You get the picture. What I am trying to say that one must package the message the right way. I am sure that it will change some mindsets and at least free women from unjust and cruel abuse and maybe even give daughter a better deal.

But we still need to address the dowry issue as it all boils down to money. We all knows that laws have failed and even if some have been punished the practise of dowry is alive and kicking. True people have the right to spend their money on weddings and nuptials but the problem occurs when you are made to spend money you do not have. The problem arises when boys are commodities the girls’ families have to pay for in cash and kind, where it becomes of matter of honour, negotiations and brokering. Many will say it is an infernal spiral you take for your son and pay for your daughter. All this is nothing short of repulsive but so ingrained in social mores that changing the equation will take time and patience.

Today, dowry have lost their relevance. Girls are educated and have equal inheritance rights. They are assets to the family they marry in and should be considered as such. What shocks me is that the young and educated are party to this inane custom. They should be the ones to herald change by putting their foot down and insist on simple weddings. But marriages have become showtime. It is OK for those who have the required resources but for others it is a millstone around their neck. It is time religious preachers who appear on TV channels and have and blind followers take up such issues instead of preaching superstitious rubbish. It almost makes me want to don saffron robes! These are people who have the power to bring about change and yet they do not. They are busy perpetrating customs that enrich them by robbing the vulnerable.

Project Y (excuse the pun) has to be launched. I wish I had the resources, the contacts and the capability of doing it. Women have suffered too long, it is time they got their rightful place in society.

Project why’s budding poet

Saffin is a student of class VI at our Govindpuri centre. He is a quiet and hard working lad with many hidden talents. Believe it or not he writes poetry and had three of his poems published in his school magazine. Two were in Hindi but one was in English. I share it with you:

The Swing
How do you like to get up in a swing
Up in the air so blue?
Oh I do think it is the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
Up in the air and over the wall
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the country side
Till I look down on the garden green
Down on the roof so brown
Up in the air I go flying again
Up in the air and down
Saffin Malik, VI A
I was absolutely floored and incredibly proud! That a child from a deprived background can write in a language so alien is worthy of praise. Well done Saffin!

Incredible kids!

Project why has been under the magic spell of five incredible young students from a business school in France. Mélissa, Jonathan, Francine, Axelle and Elodie landed at project why 4 weeks ago. As always it was my duty to welcome them and get them started. I normally spend time talking about our work and the volunteering options on offer and normally the volunteers are taken on a tour of the project before deciding what they will do ultimately do. But this time seemed different as these kids seemed rearing to go!

Presentations made, it was time to introduce them to the project. And we did. All it took was one look for each of them to decide where they wanted to go. Axelle and Elodie picked the women centre; Jonathan and Melissa chose Okhla and Francine adopted the special class.

For the next 4 weeks or so each of them went eagerly to their chosen place and gave the children not only their time but part of their hearts. Even when they were unwell, and they all got treated to a bout of the famed Delhi belly, they pumped themselves with pills and potions but never missed a day at work. They were always ready before the scheduled time and always had exciting plans and ideas to share with the children. It could be games, discovering the world or simply a bit of physical exercise, the kids always wanted more.

But that was not all. These wonderful volunteers came laden with gifts. Toys for the little ones and a huge purse meant to purchase what was needed. Thanks to their generosity and the generosity of their institution and friends project why was able to purchase much needed coolers and fans to beat the summer heat, oodles of mats to replace the tattered ones,  stationery and much more, and even repair the roof of the women centre. But still the purse remained heavy and it was decided that we would keep the money and use it as and when needed.

It was a joy to have these incredible kids as they more than anyone else truly understood the secret of the Little Prince’s fox:  It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye. These kids only saw with their hearts. They did not see the dust, flies or heat but saw the smiles on the children’s faces and their eagerness and enthusiasm; they did not see the lack of resources but saw the abundance of love. They simply saw the essential!

Each one of them gave their very best and more. And for us it was a true joy to have them as we too became better simply being with them.

I hope they carry happy memories that will spring up time and again and make them remember us. We one our side will always remember them fondly.

No country for children

Here are some statistics that should shock us and makes us act. Sadly they don’t but I will still share them with you:

  • 11 million children are homeless in India, 100 000 children in Delhi alone in spite of 70 shelters
  • 3 out of 4  street children between the age 5- 12 are physical abused
  • 300 000 to 500 000 children are forced into prostitution every year
  • There are approximately 2 million child commercial sex workers between the age of 5 and 15 years and about 3.3 million between 15 and 18 years.
    They form 40% of the total population of commercial sex workers in India.
    80% of these are found in the 5 metros.
    71% of them are illiterate.
  • 95 in every 1000 children born in India, do not see their fifth birthday.
    70 in every 1000 children born in India, do not see their first birthday.
  • More that 50% of India’s children are malnourished.
  • 44 000 children go missing every year.

A recent programme aired on a national  TV channel revealed the truth about how India treated their children. Scary! It is time we did something about it. Before it is too late to even hang our heads in shame.

    Cameos of local elections

    The recent municipal elections came and went without much ado, particularly in upmarket colonies. We were blissfully spared the din of past elections as well as the zillions of posters that plastered every available wall space. This was courtesy the new campaigning laws. At best a few leaflets were dumped in mailboxes. However it was another story in densely populated areas as the ones where our centres are located. These areas had their share of loud campaigning, slogan shouting and drum beating. We were treated to several padyatras – at best translated as political walks – where the garlanded candidate walks through lanes and by lanes preceded by drum players and followed by a motley crew. It is quite laughable as one wonders if the site of a heavily garlanded candidate with folded hands and a plastered smile urges one to vote for her/him.

    This was also the time when Akash, one of our new students in the special section, went AWOL time and again. When asked the reason for his absence he smiled in his inimitable way and answered quite merrily that he had gone to raise slogans and was paid 200 rs a day to do so. Now Akash is a young mentally challenged adult. He has joined our centre recently. Prior to that he never went to school or any institution and was a free spirit roaming the streets and viewing life with the mind of a six year old. It is people like Akash who are lured by politicians to be a part of the slogan shouting cavalcades. Akash cannot begin to fathom the meaning of elections and democracy. Yet he has a voter’s card and proudly went to exercises his franchise. What a farce!

    Anjali another student from the special class went ‘electioneering’ too and earned her 200 rs bounty. She went to vote I presume for the party who enticed her with goodies. It is sad but true that mentally challenged persons have the right to vote but do not have the  right to inherit or even open a bank account. What hypocrites we are. Anyone is a good enough vote bank, particularly of one that is amenable and compliant.

    So elections were earning time for our two challenged students.

    And in slums, in spite of all the  electoral commission’s diktats it was also party time as booze and snacks were distributed with alacrity and  impunity. This is election India style!

    Here we go….

    Got a call from a dear uncle with whom we often exchange ideas and sagacity I respect. He wanted to know my opinion about the RTE stipulation on reservation of 25% seats for underprivileged children. This was  favourite turf for which I had a ready diatribe. But wisdom prevailed and before launching my harangue I decided to ask why he was asking such a question. The reply I got was expected. The upmarket school his granddaughter went to had raised the already astronomical fees by 15% to meet the new RTE regulation. Now this family is not amongst the ones unabashedly mentioned by our minister in an interview defending the 25% reservation. When asked whether an increase in school fees would not be a burden on parents he quipped  90 per cent of them can pay more then 10 times the fee, that they pay for their children. I wonder which world he lives in or which parents he is referring to. The truth is that many parents scrape the barrel to send their children to better schools and this happens across the board.

    Last week the coordinator of our women centre informed me that there were fewer admissions in primary classes amongst boys this year. The reason: boys are being sent to local private schools that run in the morning unlike the government schools that run in the afternoon for boys. These parents are poor and barely make two ends meet but they still want to try and give a better education to their sons. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that a class with 80+ kids and no amenities cannot impart proper education. (Needless to say girls, on the other hand, attend government schools and we have waiting lists for admission at our centre!) These parents pay fees ranging from 300 to 500 rupees a month for their sons and are not the ones that can pay ten times more as suggested by our esteemed minister. Any increase in fees would be impossible to bear. And why should they take on the responsibilities of the state. Come to think about it they are having to pay these schools because state run schools are not up to the mark. How can you study under a tent, without furniture and in a class of 80 when roll call takes the better part of the allotted time. Come to think no one should be made to pay for the inefficiency of the government. Every child born in India has the right to free and equitable education. The RTE is an absolute mess. One poor kid will land in an uber rich school, another in a small local teaching shop and yet another in a tented municipal school. Is this equitable education for all. Not in my book at least!

    The minister also admitted that when the RTE was being formulated, there was a section of civil society that thought that all school should be nationalised, in other words there should be no private schools. I say kudos to them  because this is the only way to give fair and equitable education to ALL! Needless to say this was rejected. And not for the reason any honest person would  come up with but because it hits where it hurts. Too many well paced beings are making money hand over fists in education which is a very lucrative business as demand will always exceed supply even if we are talking of 10% of households. Let us not forget that for 90% the only option is state run schools even after children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections obtain 25% of the seats in preschool in private schools every year.

    But coming back to my uncle and his question. What could I say but that this was expected in spite of the assurances of the minister who stated that public schools should tap corporations who are committed to corporate social responsibilities. Ha! Ha! No school is going to do that. It is not an easy task. No sir, the schools will tap the most vulnerable: ie the parents of existing students who will ultimately succumb as it is a matter of their child’s future. I do not think this is in the spirit of the constitutional right to free and equitable education.