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Vrindavan is a small town in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, where, according to Srimadbhagwat and the Mahabharata, the grand epics of Sanskrit literature, Lord Krishna spent his childhood days. The town has hundreds of temples dedicated to the worship of Radha and Krishna and is considered sacred by a number of religious traditions such as Vaishnavism, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, and Hinduism in general. Every year it attracts lakhs of pilgrims from all over the country and abroad.

wov-3-2Ever since the horrendous practice of Sati was banned over 250 years ago, Vrindavan has become host to widows from all over India. The bulk of them, now sheltering in ashrams here, are from Bengal. Shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons, but because of tradition – and because they’re seen as a financial drain on their families – they pass their days in abject poverty and want, begging in the streets or squatting or lying on the steps outside the temples. Often clad in rags, they are also seen squatting in dirty lanes, their life being reduced to begging for scraps of food. And when they breathe their last, there’s nobody even to take care of their cremation.

Although many of them belong to good families, they cannot wear jewellery, they are forced to shave their heads and typically wear white. Even their shadows are considered bad luck.  Nobody from their families ever visits them. Their plight is summed by what Mrs. Radha Rani Biswas says. “Does it feel good because you are in a sacred place associated with Lord Krishna?” With a cynical expression on her face, she answers this question, saying: “Now I have to loiter just for a bite.” When her husband, aged 50, died, she was instantly ostracized by all those she thought loved her, including her son.

They come from rural areas where little has changed. Kumari, one of the widows says, the ashrams have turned agony into an enterprise.  “Majority of us are ignorant of our basic rights. We come from rural areas where no change has taken place. These ashrams make it a kind of business where they are selling the agony, selling the problems, that the women are going through and trying to make money out of that. I think we are ashamed of such a system,” Kumari said.

Widows’ Woes

Some time ago CNN reported:

wov-3-4“Vrindavan: India’s Hindu widows no longer have to throw themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands, but many feel they are forced into poverty and a life alone.

“In this holy Hindu city, a place that draws devotees from around the globe, thousands of widows live in shame and poverty. Hindus around the world know Vrindavan for its temples, and as a place to worship Lord Krishna.

“In India, Vrindavan is known as the city of widows.”

Even in these modern times, Hindus frown on widows who remarry. The women are often shunned by their families, blamed by their in-laws for the deaths of their husbands. Many more flee their homes voluntarily, fearing they will be abused if they stay back there.

“What else do you do in a situation where you know if you stay back in the house, you may be abused sexually?” said Ranjana Kumari, of India’s Centre for Social Research (CSR), a group that works to empower women. “There may be a possibility of your not even surviving, not even getting a meal to ward off hunger.”

So, by the thousands, they flock to the ashrams of Vrindavan, where they are provided with petty daily ration. But the rations are only available to widows who attend daily prayers. “This is our life and we accept it,” said Surbala, a widow. “I was sad to leave my home but I do not need anything more. I take my strength from God. I do not need money or land because when I die I cannot take them with me.”

Even though the situation has changed in urban areas under modern influence, Hindus still frown on widows who remarry in villages, where the bulk of the country’s population lives.

With their heads shaven and pain etched by deep wrinkles in their faces, decrepit old widows in hundreds daily chant for six to seven hours in the temples of Vrindavan:

“Hare Krishna Hare Krishna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare”

wov-3-5Sulabh International Social Service Organisation was approached by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) following a directive from the Supreme Court of India to explore the possibility of Sulabh’s intervention to render relief and sustenance to the widows.

In its social justice litigation plaint filed before Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, the NALSA had sought protection and amelioration of the situations faced by old and destitute “Vrindavan Widows”. The petition stated, they come to Vrindavan seeking the blessings of Lord Krishna, who according to their faith, was born and lived in Mathura.  They eke their livelihood by singing Bhajans in the ashrams and temples. A large number of them are forced to be in Vrindavan on account of poverty and lack of support from their own families.  Some have been abandoned in Vrindavan by their close relatives.  Many of them live in government-run homes under pathetic conditions without any proper food, medical and hygiene facilities.

After hearing on the Writ Petition filed by NALSA, Hon’ble Supreme Court directed the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA), Mathura, to conduct enumeration of the “Vrindavan Widows.” The Legal Services Authority (under the Chairmanship of District Judge, Mathura) reported back to the Court, that in different homes for the Vrindavan Widows, there is no facility for food.  Usually, widows cook food using the rations they receive under the Antyodaya Annapurna Yojna. They purchase foodgrains from the ration shop with the money they earn by singing bhajans which in the normal circumstances is just Rs. 4 per day per person.  But a good number of widows are unable to go out on account of severe geriatric problems like poor eyesight, broken bones and inability to walk.  They are helped by other women living in shelter homes by sharing their food with them. The DLSA reported that at some places, the bodies of dead widows were cut to pieces for disposal by sweepers as there was no provision for cremation at these homes.

All the above-mentioned information was communicated to Sulabh International Social Service Organisation through a letter from Mr. U. Sarathchandran, Member Secretary, National Legal Service Authority (F.No. L/15/2011/NALSA dated 6th August, 2012). The relevant portion is reproduced below:

During the hearing of the aforesaid case on 03.08.2012 Hon’ble Supreme Court asked the National Legal Services Authority to enquire whether Sulabh International Social Service Organisation is willing to make arrangements for supply of food to the destitute women living in the different government run homes in the Vrindavan area. According to the survey report prepared by the District Legal Services Authority, Mathura, the homes run by the government and the different NGOs where the ‘Vrindavan Widows’ live are: (i) Mahila Asray Sadan situated at Ramanuj Nagar; (ii) Mahila Asray Sadan situated at Chaitanya Vihar; (iii) Mahila Asray Sadan situated at Chaitanya Vihar Phase-II; (iv) Meera Sahbhagini Kendra (established by Govt. of U.P.); (v) All India Women’s Conference (Taraash Mandir); and (v) Amar Badi now (Ma-Dham).

The case stands posted to 03.09.2012 for further orders. In the meantime, the National Legal Services Authority requests the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation to consider this matter in the most benevolent manner and inform this Authority whether they can take care of the requirements of food for the destitute women living in the aforesaid homes.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation replying to Mr. Sarathchandran’s letter expressed his gratitude for the confidence reposed in Sulabh and assured that he would soon visit Vrindavan with a team and see the arrangements to be made there at the earliest.

Sulabh’s Gesture

Dr. Pathak, accompanied by volunteers working for the organisation, visited on August 12, 2012 Vrindavan and promptly made arrangements for regular supply of food to the widows.  After meeting the widows and ascertaining their problems, Dr. Pathak announced: “From today onwards, no widow of Vrindavan will sleep without food. Each and every widow will get food every night. Now, we will take care of every need of the widows and orphans who roam about and beg in the streets of Vrindavan. Sulabh will ensure food, clothing, proper health care and hygiene.”

When Dr. Pathak started distributing Rs 500 to each of the widows, there was virtually a stampede, each inmate of the Ashram he was visiting scrambled to receive the bounty.  Women – both from this ashram and others – were made to queue up to receive a one-time grant of Rs. 500 after ensuring their name was registered for receiving regular dinner. Common dining was also arranged for the ladies. A physician also checked up blood pressure and listened to complaints regarding health of those who came forward.

The Sulabh Founder announced that henceforth Rs. 25 per day would be paid to each of the 1,780 widows of the government ashram. As the apex court had recently taken a strong exception to the manner in which the bodies of widows, who lived in government shelter homes at Vrindavan, were disposed – by chopping them into pieces and putting them in gunny bags – on the plea of lack of money for proper cremation, Dr. Pathak announced that Sulabh would initiate move to set up an electric crematorium in Vrindavan. Sulabh will also speak to the local authorities to fund the project so that these women could be given a dignified cremation. Answering a question by one of the newsmen who had accompanied him, Dr. Pathak said taking into account all the requirements of the widows in the ashrams, Sulabh would earmark a budgetary allocation of Rs. 20 lakh per month.

wov-3-6With his vast experience in the field of low-cost sanitation and social uplift of manual scavengers, Dr. Pathak said  his first task would be to motivate the orphans and able bodied widows to undergo vocational training so that they can earn their livelihood. Steps would be taken to empower the widows by providing them professional training in weaving, food processing and also the abandoned children, forced to beg on the streets would be provided with food and adequate standards of health and hygiene.  Initially, the service would be provided to widows living in four women shelter homes including Mahila Ashray Sadan at Ramnagar, Chaitanya Vihar, Chaitanya Vihar Phase-II and Meera Sahabhagini Kendra.