Feature

Volume 6 Issue 8 - October 01, 2009

The ‘State’ of Affairs: Where does the buck stop?

India has 70 million people with disabilities. Of this, there would be at least some lakh of people who are destitute and therefore, vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Billions of rupees are allocated each year to ‘welfare’ schemes of such people. Why then, everytime, there arises a situation where the government needs to take onus, responsibility is passed faster than a ‘passing the parcel’ game? Dorodi Sharma of D.N.I.S. takes a look at the 'State' of affairs.

Sonam (name changed) is a 19 year old orphan. She is mentally retarded. All her life she has been shuttling from one shelter home to the other. At one such government run shelter home in Chandigarh, she was raped and got pregnant. This could be the story of many more like her. But unlike the other stories which get brushed under the carpet, Sonam’s case reached the Supreme Court.

The Chandigarh administration fought tooth and nail to terminate her pregnancy citing the uncertain future of the unborn child as the mother to be apparently has the intellectual capacity of a 9 year old. Then the National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities, Disabled Rights Group (D.R.G.), a cross - disability advocacy group and Parivaar, the parents’ body for intellectually disabled people, stepped in. National Trust submitted an affidavit in Court saying that it was willing to offer an assistance package. The apex court in its detailed judgement directed the National Trust to work for the best interest of Sonam and chalk out an assistance package along with the Chandigarh administration. Most importantly it emphasised the need for moving beyond social prejudices.

Within two weeks of the detailed judgement being released, Chandigarh administration started harping on the National Trust’s ‘promise’ of ‘adopting’ the girl and wanted the girl to be moved from Chandigarh. How did the Chandigarh administration assume that the assistance package meant ‘adoption’ is best known only to them?! The local media in Chandigarh also went berserk with each morning’s headlines screaming ‘National Trust backtracks!’

In the meantime, as desired by the Supreme Court, the National Trust convened a meeting on September 22 to discuss a road map for Sonam and her child. A Committee was formed for this purpose, where the Chandigarh administration was also invited. But the latter saw red and Home Secretary Ram Niwas wrote a very strongly worded letter to Chairperson, National Trust, Poonam Natarajan decrying the Trust’s flair for ‘high sounding’ concepts like ‘Committees’ and boycotted the meeting.

Nevertheless, the other Committee members met on September 22 to discuss the immediate concerns of the girl. As Sonam is 7 months into her pregnancy, the foremost concerns were nutrition, prenatal care and training for motherhood. Committee Members found it difficult to believe that the Chandigarh administration was incapable of providing these three basic needs. Committee Members strongly felt that to move the girl from Chandigarh to any other place for these minor issues made no sense at all.

With these issues in mind and to plan the future course of action, a Sub - Committee visited Chandigarh on September 26. This Sub – Committee included Poonam Natarajan; Javed Abidi, Convenor, Disabled Rights Group; Dr. Shanti Auluck, Representative, Parivaar; Vandana Bedi, Consultant, Disability and Development; and Gautam Banerjee, Legal Advisor, National Trust.

Meanwhile, Sonam was shifted to the Eclampsia ward of the Government Medical College and Hospital in Sector 32 on complaining of abdominal pain. Oblivious to the slinging match concerning her, she was basking in all the attention that she was getting, when the Sub - Committee visited her.

“On brief observation she appeared to be quite a high functioning woman with appropriate responses and we felt that she might have minimal support intellectual disability. With appropriate training in mothering and child care, she would be able to manage her baby with adequate support," said Dr. Auluck.

After meeting Sonam, the Members of the Sub – Committee visited Ashreya, a home for the ‘mentally challenged’ (as the plaque boasted). The idea was to see Ashreya and to hold a discussion with the Chandigarh administration officials. The National Trust once again reiterated that it was willing to provide all possible assistance that was needed for raising the child. It believed that with proper training the girl would be ready for motherhood under adequate supervision. But the Chandigarh administration was adamant on its stand that it was in no position to provide surrogate motherhood to the child. Niwas went on to say that the government systems were by no means adequate.

This despite the fact that Ashreya had 4 female attendants, 4 male attendants, 4 nurses, 1 dietician, 1 clerk and 4 sweepers for its 14 resident inmates, 13 of who were female and 1 who avails the day care facilities.

“The attrition rate in our shelter homes is very high. Today’s full attendance is only because of the fact that they had prior information about this visit,” said Niwas.

“Government systems are not equipped to handle such situations. There is no security in our shelter homes. Had the government been doing what it should be doing, the girl wouldn’t have been raped in the first place,” he added.

To cut the long story short, the Chandigarh administration agreed to take care of Sonam till the delivery of her child. But the question of the long term future of Sonam and her to be born child still remains uncertain.

Another meeting was convened on October 1 in Delhi which was attended by representatives of the Chandigarh administration, including Niwas. At this meeting, National Trust unveiled its assistance package: a corpus of Rs. 8 lakh for lifetime care of Sonam and her child under its Gharaunda scheme, a Sahayogi till the child attains 5 years of age and a health cover of Rs. 1 lakh under its Niramaya scheme. The money would be managed by the Local Level Committee of National Trust. It also offered to take Ashreya under its supervision so that it could be transformed into a supported living home. To ensure proper supervision, the package mandates periodic social audits.

The Chandigarh administration representatives were very vocal about their displeasure with the assistance package. And it was easy to believe that the main reason for this was the fact that they could not wash their hands off the matter as they initially thought or wanted. The package specifically states that the ultimate responsibility lay on the State. It even went on to say that in the long run, all States and Union Territories should have a specific policy for long term care of adults with disability who need protection.

After a lot of arguments, Niwas stated the fact that the final decision lay with the Governor of Punjab, General (Retd.) S.F. Rodrigues, who is also the Administrator of Chandigarh. A meeting has been convened on October 5 by General Rodrigues to discuss this issue. If there is a deadlock even thereafter, then both parties will have no choice but to approach the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

The questions that arise now are many. When will the State stop absolving itself from its responsibilities? Why isn’t the State being proactive in coming forward with a plan for the girl who was raped in its custody? This is not a standalone case. There were and there will be many more similar cases that will spring up every now and then. Will the State keep on passing the buck while the fate of its underprivileged citizens hang in balance? Who is accountable for all the schemes and crores of rupees that have been spent precisely for such situations? For how long will disabled people depend on Good Samaritans and civil society?

It is time for the State to wake up and smell the coffee, time for them to realise that they are answerable to its citizens. It has been far too long. The buck needs to stop somewhere and the buck needs to stop now.

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