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Efforts to give them dignity
By the Supreme Court, 2007-17
In 2006, Deepa Mehta’s Indo-Canadian film ‘Water’ was making waves in international film festivals for poignantly portraying the pitiable and exploited lives of widows in Varanasi in the 1930s. In India, it invited the wrath of right-wing groups.
Around that time, the TOI published a feature titled ‘White Shadows of Vrindavan’, depicting the hopeless and colourless world of abandoned widows in the city, which mythology sets as the stage for Lord Krishna’s colourful ‘Rasleela’. The film and the article showed that the condition of widows in the 1930s and today in the two holy towns had not changed much.
Between 2010 and 2015, India overtook China and became the country with the most number of widows at 4.6 crore. Several thousands of them live in Vrindavan and adjoining areas. Many have been abandoned there by their own kin. Most prefer to stay there rather than go back to their homes where they face a punishingly demeaning custom.
Forced into a world of whites, they showcase society’s traditional rigour, reserved only for them — no bangles, no coloured sarees, no nonvegetarian food, no gracing of auspicious family functions and many more. When all these restrictions are piled together and chained to their lives, it stifles them and forces them to seek succour with peers in Vrindavan than undergo the daily humiliation.
Even before they can come to terms with the blow of losing their life partner, they experience sudden and excruciating social alienation. When the film ‘Water’ was stirring a sense of shame and anger, the TOI article provided the foil for NGO ‘Environment and Consumer Protection Foundation’ to move the Supreme Court with a PIL through advocate Ravindra Bana for improving the most neglected and forgotten section of our society. The SC decided to take up the case on December 13, 2007.
What touched the SC was the TOI article’s description of widows congregating in ashrams and temples (as per an estimate, Vrindavan has some 5,000 big and small temples and ashrams) early in the day to sing bhajans and are paid about Rs 18 for seven to eight hours of singing. They spend the rest of the day begging.
In 2008, the SC ordered the National Commission for Women to prepare a comprehensive report. The NCW mentioned its 1996 report ‘The Widows of Vrindavan’, which estimated widow population there to be more than 5,000. Its 2009-10 report, submitted to the SC, said their numbers had increased but their plight remained as deplorable as ever.
The NCW report said majority of the widows belonged to West Bengal (74%), followed by UP and Chhattisgarh (3% each). But many belonged to Odisha, Assam, Tripura, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and even Punjab.
Why so many from Bengal? The NCW said this was because “status of widows in Bengal is among the worst in the country and in modern times, poverty is another reason for the arrival of more and more widowed women from West Bengal”.
With the advent of the social justice bench headed by Justice Madan B Lokur, monitoring of this PIL and the zeal to improve the lot of Vrindavan widows gained steam. It emphasised on a detailed study about the plight of widows and a coordinated effort by the Centre and UP. The untiring efforts of the court and advocate Bana saw as many as 18 reports being generated.
Justice Lokur-headed bench’s focus was to give the women the right to life with dignity and make the SC mandate in Maneka Gandhi judgment [1978 SCC (1) 248] a reality for the widows who had been living on the fringe shorn of their dignity and emotions.
Last year, the SC in its judgment said, “There can be little or no doubt at all that widows in some parts of the country are socially deprived and to an extent ostracised. Perhaps this is the reason why many of them choose to come to Vrindavan and other ashrams where, unfortunately, they are not treated with the dignity they deserve.
“This is evident from the (TOI) article that caused this PIL and the compilation of reports that this litigation generated. It is to give voice to these hapless widows that it became necessary for this court to intervene as a part of its constitutional duty and for reasons of social justice to issue appropriate directions.”
The final order disposing of the PIL, after an arduous 11-year journey through redtape, came three weeks ago. It recorded that a 1,000-bed widow home was constructed in Vrindavan and it would be operational from September 1 as well as works undertaken to renovate widow homes with periodic health checkups by government doctors.
An important development also got recorded in the judgment of July 31. Under its corporate social responsibility scheme, Hudco had decided to take over renovation of all widow homes in the country.
The court asked NCW and state panels for women to ensure implementation of the ‘Agreed Action Plan’ submitted by the Centre which provided for pension, health care and vocational training for the widows at Vrindavan and other places in various states. Widows coming from socially and economically deprived strata of population become even more vulnerable without state support. The SC intervened and attempted to make widows breathe easy in the sunset period of life. Now, it is for the states and Centre to take it forward.