Writing by Patrick Keddie
Last December, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Maitri India found 95-year-old widow Kanchan Dal living and begging on the streets of Radhakund, a small village a few kilometres outside of Vrindavan. Now she is sitting on her bed in Maitri’s recently constructed emergency shelter. Stick-like limbs poke out of her sari at various angles and her right eye is covered by a cloudy cataract. She says she can’t remember when her husband died or exactly how long she’s lived in the street. Maitri staff are amazed she has survived so long and they seem to dote on her. “If he doesn’t press my feet for ten minutes each day,” she says, gesturing to a member of staff, “I throw a tantrum.”
As India’s politicians vied with each other for popularity in the recent elections, NGOs say that millions of the country’s much-maligned widows continue to be ignored. Many widows are unregistered, excluded from the voting process and easy to dismiss. In recent years NGOs such as Maitri are increasing being forced to care for Vrindavan’s most vulnerable widows, as government negligence and exploitation continues unabated.
Maitri offer healthcare and food to around 500 widows in the Vrindavan area, including the village of Radhakund where an estimated 3,000 widows live. Maitri is currently constructing two ashrams in the village; each will house around 100 widows. “This is the most destitute part of this area,” says Winnie Singh, Executive Director of Maitri India. “The widows out here get no government benefits of any kind. The government just doesn’t recognize them. Nobody fights for them.”
Thousands of destitute widows have congregated in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh, to scratch together a meagre existence through begging or chanting in the holy city’s temples for several hours a day, in exchange for a few rupees – enough for a handful of rice and some chapatti flour.
“Widows here are in a prison-type situation of hellish purgatory,” says Panca Gauda Das, President of Vrindavan’s ISKCON temple, “and people think they deserve it.”
Widowed men can re-marry and live normal lives. However, in some traditional Indian communities, widowed women are regarded as ‘untouchable’; in spite of their previously held caste or class. They may be expected to shave their heads, wear only white and spend their remaining days praying for their dead husbands in a supposedly holy place such as Vrindavan. Widows are often regarded as ‘inauspicious’, although the women are often forced to leave their families because financial factors or petty family jealousies lead them to be regarded as a burden. Some are from wealthy families; NGOs claim to have seen widows dropped off in a Mercedes and then abandoned.
Shakti Dasu is a 67-year-old widow from Bengal. When she talks she reveals teeth that are red and rotting at the roots from chewing betel. Dasu’s husband died eight years ago and she came to the Vrindavan area a year later. She is from a well-to-do family and used to own a shop and a three-storey house. She claims that her son wanted the property so badly that he broke bones in both of her legs and inflicted serious head injuries. After a year of mistreatment she gave him everything she owned and came to Radhakund to earn 10 rupees a day chanting in government ashrams.
The destitute women who go to the government’s bhajan ashrams in huge numbers are inadvertently filling the pockets of others. The more widows there are chanting in the ashram, the higher the level of donations; and the older the women, the more generous the benefaction.
Singh says that money is made from government ashrams “at every point.” Donations to these ashrams are commonly misappropriated by ashram employees, creating an incentive to keep recruiting large numbers of the oldest widows. The money earmarked for maintaining the buildings often disappears. Money is commonly made by stealing the paltry government pensions awarded to the widows, typically between 300-500 rupees per month. “25-30% of the money is often taken away by somebody from the [ashram] management, as well as the government, as well as the bank,” says Singh.
When widows become too ill or frail to chant in government ashrams, they are often forced to beg in the streets. Shefali Bhowmick is a frail, birdlike 65-year-old and it’s too arduous for her to chant for several hours a day. Bhowmick’s family became verbally abusive towards her following the death of her husband and they allowed her 12-year-old grandson to hit her. “My son and daughter [in law] didn’t care for me, they didn’t want me,” she says. “They were asking me for money and they wanted me to work.”
She came to Radhakund two years ago and began begging. On a good day she can earn 25 rupees, on a bad day just 10. She becomes tearful when recounting her story, rocking back and forth, remembering the house and land in Calcutta that she used to own with her husband.
In recent years some legislation has been passed to protect India’s widows. The Maintenance of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, passed in 2007, made it illegal for children to abandon their parents. However, such legislation often fails to offer protection for widows as the law is often not applied. In many instances widows are poorly educated and are not able to understand or demand their rights. When laws are enacted, traditional values often render them impractical.
Winnie Singh has offered to fight for Shakti Dasu’s case and get her land and property back, but Dasu declined. “Her take on it is ‘you will put me back in my house, but my community is not going to accept me because they are going to say – ‘here is a woman who threw her son out of his house’.’ They will not say anything to him even though he threw his own mother out! It’s very strange.”
Sulabh International, a not-for-profit Indian NGO, began working with the widows of Vrindavan in 2012, following stories broken by the Indian media which detailed instances where the bodies of dead widows had been chopped up, put in a sack and thrown in the river, rather than being given costly Hindu cremation and burial rites. In the aftermath of the scandal, and resulting Public Interest Litigation, the Supreme Court approached Sulabh for help looking after the widows in government ashrams.
Sulabh now oversees the running of seven government ashrams, and one private ashram for Nepalese widows – a rough total of 800 widows. They are offering healthcare and vocational training to the women, in addition to a monthly stipend of 2,000 rupees. Some of the women say that the money has changed their lives; many can now afford nutritious food and have their healthcare needs met. Some of them sell dresses, bags and incense-sticks on the local markets, using their skills gained through Sulabh’s vocational training.
Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh, believes that giving the women vocational training can change the way they are perceived. “These women should be a resource of the country. Not helpless people in society. And the moment they earn a livelihood, the whole family will come to give them respect because she is an earning member.”
Maitri’s Winnie Singh says that reconciliation between widows and their families is actually very rare and labour intensive – it often takes a lot of work by intermediaries and will only work in a few cases. Furthermore, for the many widows who are too frail to work or learn new skills, a huge number still rely on charity, and wherever money is handed out the scope for corruption drastically increases.
Around 350 widows are living in Chetan Vihar, a government-owned residential ashram in Vrindavan, which Sulabh now runs. Many of the women speak reverently of Pathak, giving him the honorific ‘Baba’. However, after some time, other women come forward with complaints about the intermediary NGO that administers the ashram on Sulabh’s behalf.
Ramanandi Nai Thakur, is a 75-year-old woman. White roots are ousting the bright orange henna from her hair. She claims that there was a recent altercation between intermediary NGO workers and her friend, that they were dragged out of their room by their saris, and then hit and kicked. She also says that she was given only a quarter of her 2,000 rupee stipend by the intermediary NGO this month and has had to forgo some food and rely on friends to help her. She says that complaining was futile: “We can’t ask Dr Pathak for help because he is busy and, when we ask the government for help, they ignore us.”
A middle-aged woman living in Chetan Vihar approaches and says quietly that the problems with the intermediary NGO are fairly common and that they threaten the women. “They say, ‘if you tell anyone anything about what has happened we will wipe your name from the list, throw you out the ashram and you’ll be back begging in the streets.’”
Another woman complained that she was not getting the money she was owed and needs funds for an eye problem. “Tell Baba what is happening” she pleaded.
Sulabh claim that they were not aware of the allegations but that they take them extremely seriously. They said that they intended to remove and replace the administering NGO immediately. Dr Pathak acknowledged that corruption amongst many of India’s NGOs is rife.
Back in Panca Gauda Das’s office, the walls are adorned with pictures of Krishna in various guises. On his desk sits a golden bust of a self-satisfied looking Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement.
ISKCON have been criticised for not doing enough to help Vrindavan’s widows. Gauda Das says that they do some food distribution, and some Hare Krishna devotees run small projects, but claims their main focus is on “spreading Krishna consciousness.” “It’s the duty of government [to help widows],” he says. “We don’t want to lose our main thrust, which is providing spiritual knowledge and education.”
Das cheerfully states that we are currently living through the ‘Age of Kali Yuga’; a period of destruction, darkness, moral degradation and decline that some Hindus believe is the final stage in a quartet of cyclical ages.
Twenty years ago the writer William Dalrymple visited Vrindavan and found widows living in abject squalor and misery. His vivid account was published a book titled The Age of Kali. Two decades later, India has changed dramatically. It is much wealthier, though more unequal, and has undergone rapid economic growth and development. Traditional views are being forcefully challenged. NGOs are increasingly involved in caring for the widows and new approaches, such as offering vocational training, may help some women.
But the scale of widows’ issue remains vast. When Dalrymple visited Vrindavan he estimated that there were around 8,000 widows in the area. Now it is estimated that there are several thousand more, although a definitive survey is required, and India’s NGO sector is not able to cope with the demand.
“I guess one just has to keep talking to the government because they need to accept their responsibilities,” says Singh. “They are supposed to be responsible for shelter, health, clothing – everything. We are just supporting what they are supposed to be doing, [but] we are assuming their role.”
As politicians campaigned for votes in India’s lengthy election process, NGOs claimed that there are few differences between the political parties on the issue of widows because they are simply ignored. Despite the work of NGOs, the age old problems of exploitation, corruption and neglect remain prevalent. The ‘Age of Kali Yuga’ continues to be particularly cruel to India’s widows.
[Photos by David Shaw]
[This piece was published by Feminist Times here]