January 28, 2018
On a balmy morning, impoverished women from Sunderbans whose husbands were killed by man-eater tigers, entered – for the first time in their lives – a glitzy hotel in Kolkata to witness hope that has eluded them for decades.
They all walked up the mahogany-walled expansive stairs of Oberoi Grand, marvelling at the hotel’s suited butlers offering tea in porcelain pots and biscuits freshly baked from the hotel’s expensive bakeries. Some of the widows wore ashen symbols on their forehead as reverence to Lord Vishu, the creator and among the Trinity of Hindu mythology. All wore sarees starched for the occasion. Their guides showed them the expensive chandeliers of the hotel, told them it cost lakhs.
Leading the speakers was one of India’s top social reformers, Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, who had chalked out a plan with the West Bengal to alleviate the standards of living of these hapless women who live on a pittance. It was the first ray of hope for the widows, who had always found mention in global journals for the death of their husbands because of the wild cats.
There are no official estimates of such killings though locals in Sunderbans estimate a little over 1000 people – fishermen, wood and honey collectors – died in the last decade of such attacks. Some were killed during morning ablutions in the forest.
The initiative by Dr Pathak, whose exemplary work in creating hygienic toilets in India and across the world and water treatment plants has helped him get global awards, was pathbreaking because the widows have always been neglected.
Not just the Sunderban widows, Dr Pathak has been working for almost a decade on the plight of similar women from Bengal who live in faraway places like Varanasi, Vrindavan and Mathura. He and his team members from Sulabh International encouraged the women to tie rakhi – a symbolic thread of brotherhood – on the wrist of former President Pranab Mukherjee, pushed them to celebrate Holi, the festival of colour that was always forbidden for the women.
His unique move on January 19, 2018, Oberoi Grand hotel, where a cup of tea costs Rs 230 and a lunch Rs 2500, was a giant ray of hope for the poor widows, who live in thatched houses lit by kerosene lamps and eat frugal meals. In his speech, Dr. Pathak exhorted those present on the dais and also in the audience to join hands and work with Sulabh and the West Bengal government to push the widows out of poverty, helping them create cottage markets for local use.
Rest, as expected, was speeches by local leaders who exhorted the widows to remember the historic days of Bengal’s reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. It created little impact on the women, ostensibly because it was more than 183 years ago. Some of the speakers even talked about parental discord and an increasing number of aged heading for old-age homes. Such arguments were clearly out of place, it had no relevance to the present.
Sulabh International’s creditable initiative will bear fruit only if people in Bengal are exhorted by the state government to start sub-groups and work with such women found in villages across the Sunderbans. And also in Vrindavan, Mathura and Varanasi.
Lectures about the past will not help the widows. You cannot tell the poor what they should do, you must show them what you can do for them to rise in life. It is a tough call in India where social responsibility is committed under fears of tax regulations set by the government. Such efforts are mostly in the files for the chartered accountant to file returns, mere lip service.
It’s like offering food without a human touch. It is time Dr Pathak and his men get their rightful due, only then it will transcend into a fresh lease of lives for those hapless women.
Else, they will continue to live in dilapidated conditions without hope.