An on the spot study by Bharatiya Stree Shakti and Chetna on the plight of widows in Vrindavan, Mathura and surrounding areas. Intervention sought in the case already pending in Supreme Court.
The widows of Vrindavan have been receiving attention in the media for long. Deserted by their families majority of them came here from West Bengal, Odisha, Tripura and some other states with a view to spend their life in the service of God. They mostly bank upon the money they receive from different temples or Ashrams for conducting daily bhajan-keertans or as alms. Naturally, this cannot ensure a dignified life. There have been some conflicting reports about their conditions in the media. Sometimes these are displayed out of proportions.
The major challenge before the progressing Indian society is to rehabilitate these deserted and destitute women so that they can live a dignified life. In order to take some corrective steps and also to study their woes deeply, a six-member delegation of Bharatiya Stree Shakti (BSS) and Chetna under the leadership of former principal judge of Family Court, Nagpur, Ms Meera Khadakkar visited Vrindavan, Mathura and other surrounding areas like Radha Kunda, Govardhan from October 2 to 7, 2012. Based on the findings that the delegation gathered, both the organisations have now filed an intervention in the Supreme Court to become a party in the case already pending on these women. The original petition, filed in July 2012 by Environment and Consumer Protection Foundation, New Delhi, is based on some conflicting media reports.
Quoting the newspaper reports, the petition claimed that around 20,000 abandoned widows live in Vrindavan and they are paid Rs 18 per day for singing bhajans for 7-8 hours. They depend upon the alms and donations for their livelihood. The petition also claimed that many widows are coerced into prostitution and they are not even cremated properly after death. In August 2012, the apex court expressed concern over the violation of cremation and other human rights of these women.
In their study, the BSS and Chetna focused on prominently four points—why the number of women coming here is increasing, reasons for their coming to Vrindavan, role and support of the administration and their cremation rites. During the study, the team prominently visited Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Parishad, Shri Bhagwan Bhajan Ashram, Vedic Sanatan Dharma Vridh Mahila Kalyan Sansthan, Maa Dham, Rama Krishna Mission, Goswami Ashram, ISKON and Maitri. The team also interacted with the District Collector Sameer Verma, Civil Judge and Secretary of District Legal Aid Authority Shri Gaurav Sharma, President Nagar Palika Pt Mukesh Gautam, social activist Shri Bhagwan Das Chaudhary and Sarpach of Radha Kunda.
The petition in SC claimed that there are 20,000 to 30,000 widows in different Ashrams in Vrindavan, etc. But the team found (which was also substantiated by District Collector Gaurav Sharma) that the estimated number of such women is around 1739 only and certainly not 30,000. It was also observed that the number of women coming from West Bengal has reduced. On the denial of proper funeral of the widows majority of the authorities claimed that in some cases the funeral delays due to completion of legal formalities. The reason of it is that either the addresses of the relatives are not updated with the shelter homes or relatives do not respond to the information. “In this situation a mortuary should be set up in Vrindavan immediately to preserve the dead bodies till the cremation is performed,” the study said. Bhagwan Das, a social worker, (who cremates unclaimed bodies) also denies the reports of disrespect to dead bodies of the widows.
The study found that there are many women who are not widows and have a very different story. The team came across two women who were educated. One had completed diploma in nursing while the other was in teaching profession before coming here. She financially supported her younger brothers and sisters. As soon as the family became economically independent they abandoned her but since then she had passed her marriageable age. There are also some women who came there willingly and are now supporting their families financially.
The study also discovered some surprising facts that in spite of widows and destitute, females from Bangladesh and Nepal have made up their appearance as Hindu widows and staying with their families to earn their livelihood through alms and begging. A few of them has their spiritual motives also. A 100 years old Haridasi said, “I am neither married nor destitute or deserted. I came here about 40 years ago with my Guruji.”
The team recommended the constitution of a task force or steering committee comprising of lawyers/retired judges, representatives from NGOs and responsible government official to assess the living conditions of the destitute women who draw some guidelines for providing counselling, create awareness about their rights and help them becoming self-reliant by imparting some skills. The team also recommended a proper census followed by issuing of identity cards to these women. It is also recommended that the government of West Bengal and Orissa should be asked to take necessary steps to check inflow of the destitute women.
The team further recommended that in order to avoid begging, ashrams should be run on the guidelines of old age homes, which should provide all facilities like shelter, food, entertainment and spiritual activities. The team finds that the bleak picture of the widows is changing slowly and their economic independence slowly replacing with the old attitude of helplessness and living off charity.
Contrary to the heartbreaking picture of these widows repeatedly shown by the media, the Vatsalya Gram, a project by Didi Maa Sadhvi Ritambhara, has successfully connected the widows with the orphan children, thus making a ‘family’. This is one way of rehabilitating the widows. “The best way is that no young widow should come here and they should spend their life respectfully with their families or in the society only. Before we create that kind of ideal atmosphere it is the collective responsibility of the entire society to extend a dignified life to the women who have already come here and are at the last stage of their life,” adds Ms Meera Khadakkar, head of the study team.