May 13, INDIA (TRIBUNE) — The bleak picture of the widows of Vrindavan is changing slowly.
Usha Rai reports on the economic independence and the life of dignity which is slowly replacing the old attitude of helplessness and living off charity.
April and May are blistering hot months in Vrindavan but the tide of pilgrims to this birthplace of Lord Krishna has not abated. Nor has the population of widows. It ranges from 12,000 to 15,000 and despite all the efforts of the Department of Women at the Centre and the West Bengal government, their numbers continue to grow. While many of them have been abandoned by their families in this city of Gods, others come on their own seeking moksha (eternal bliss) after death.
Efforts to move the simians, all worthy descendants of Hanuman, have failed and those who have to brave the heat for visiting the temples or for other work, hide their spectacles and packets of food, particularly the prasad, as they negotiate the open gutters, the endless flow of garbage and the potted and pitted streets.
As frail widows, many of them walking with the support of sticks, scurry to and from the Bhajan ashrams, the monkeys can be seen scampering down temple spires, lurking at the sharp turns of the narrow bylanes or swinging from tree tops waiting to grab a tasty morsel from unsuspecting victims. Spectacles and dark glasses grabbed are not returned till their grubby hands are greased with a fruit or some food. Despite the congestion and squalor of Vrindavan, more and more temples as well as guest houses and apartment blocks are coming up.
Vrindavan, despite all the charity pouring into the city and the endless rhythm of chanting, conch shells and temple bells, seems to be caught in a time warp. Only the discerning will get a whiff of the slow change taking place in the lives of widows and the destitute in the city. Many widows are not wearing the stark white clothes of widowhood-in fact they have opted for pastel and printed saris- but those living in the Guild of Service’s Aamar Bari have stopped going to the bhajan ashrams to chant and accept in charity small sums of money and uncooked rice and dal.
At the forefront of the movement to give vocational training and economic dignity to widows and other destitute women is Guild of Service which runs Aamar Bari for 103 widows. Unfortunately, a majority of the residents of Aamar Bari are too old to work. Pramoda is 90 to 95 years and Satyavati is said to be 112. Many of those bent double with age cannot obviously go out and work but within the confines of the home they wash their own clothes, plates, glasses and other utensils after having the meal prepared by the younger inmates.
But the younger ones in their 40s, 50s and even early 60s are eager to supplement their income. From 10.30 a.m. till about 5 pm, with a break for lunch, is work time. Shefali Chakravarty, a skilled craftsperson for leather goods and for tailoring the poshak of Lord Krishna and his companion, Radha, arrives with a few women trained by her, bundles of leather, bolts of brightly coloured cloth for the deities’ dresses and the gold piping and ribbons. All those interested in improving their economic status learn to cut and stitch the leather pieces into functional leather pouches, bags to carry loose coins, credit cards etc. While the bags to keep the mobile are Rs 80 a piece, the smaller money bags etc cost Rs 60 to 40 a piece. In a day, a trained woman can make three to five pouches. The older women make cotton wicks for the lamps and the younger ones learn to stitch pretty clothes for the gods and goddesses of Vrindavan. Shefali markets the goods herself to traders in Agra, Jaipur, Mathura and Nainital.
A lot of the bags and namkeens come to the Guild of Service office and are marketed by the staff. The wicks for the lamps, the poshak of Radha and Krishna, the beads for chanting and the neatly stitched cotton bags to hold the beads are marketed to traders in the vicinity. Some women even make petticoats and blouses. Drying in the sun at Aamar Bari are the wadis. When it is not wadis the women are busy rolling out papads.
The women, sitting in the comfort of the home and working at their own pace, earn anything from Rs 300 to Rs 800 a month. Some excellent namkeens are also made by the women but only in season, says Bhagwati, the culinary expert of the home. A Marwari from Calcutta, 60-year-old Bhagwati came to Vrindavan two years ago after the death of her husband and father-in-law. While her father-in-law was a manager of a mill, her husband looked after a petrol pump. "I left my son to look after my mother-in-law and came to Vrindavan for peace and solace," she says. Bhagwati is the official chappati-maker of the home. The dough is kneaded by someone else but chappati-making is her responsibility and she takes pride in the softness of her chappatis. Every day a mountain of chappatis are made. Bhagwati earns Rs 500 a month for making chappatis and for the namkeens of the season another couple of hundred rupees. Her son had just sent her four saris and she twirled and proudly showed the one she was wearing. Bhagwati’s only weakness is tobacco and she makes frequent visits to the shop around the corner for the pudiya. In Kolkata her children would indulge her with a whole box of paan bahar, she recalls. But Bhagwati has no complaints. She is happy to be in Aamar Bari.
In 2004, when the Akshaya Patra (midday meals) scheme was started by Krishna Heritage (the Bangalore based ISKCON group), a small batch of widows from Aamar bari went there to make chappatis, clean the rice and chop vegetables. They were paid Rs 1,400 to Rs 1,500 a month. When Akshaya Patra went into mechanised chappati-making, the work stopped for a lot of the women. Chabbi, a widow from Bengal, who was with Aamar Bari for seven years, left the ashram two years ago to stay in a rented room and work for Akshaya Patra. She cleans rice and chops vegetables from 9.30 am to 5 pm and earns Rs 1,500 a month. She gets her lunch at her work place and has only to cook one meal a day. Occasionally, she goes to the Bhajan ashrams to sing and earn a little extra. She does not find it demeaning. In her mid-50s, Chabbi has walked out of the shelter of the home and is an independent member of society. She pays a nominal rent of Rs 400 a month and has a bank account. A lot of widows have bank accounts and their deposits are growing slowly but steadily.
Some 200 widows and young, unemployed women have done a three-month-course as nursing aides and most of them are employed in the hospitals and nursing homes of Vrindavan, Mathura and Agra. Chabbi’s daughter, 30 years old Lalitha, came to Vrindavan six years ago not in search of her mother but to improve her own life. Her husband, a house painter, was finding it difficult to get work in Bengal and Vrindavan seemed a good option. So husband in tow, she landed at Vrindavan and sought the help of Aamar Bari and Guild of Service, where her mother was staying. Lalitha was in one of the first batches to do the nursing aide’s course. She works at Aamar Bari and helps look after the old and infirm. She gives injections, drips, bedpan and sponges and changes the clothes of the bed ridden.
Fortynine-year-old Usha Dei is her patient at Aamar Bari. When Usha came to Aamar Bari two years ago she could walk and do her work with some difficulty. But a spine injury that occurred after an accident some 15 years ago has resurfaced and today she is confined to her bed and is not even able to lift her leg. It is Lalitha who bathes and changes her clothes every day. In all there are some 30 sick and old inmates who need the assistance of Lalitha and two other nursing aides.
Lalitha would probably get a better-paid job in one of the city hospitals but with two small children and very little knowledge of Hindi, she feels she can contribute more to the inmates of Aamar Bari. Lalitha takes home Rs 800 a month.
Fifty of the 103 inmates of Aamar Bari get a widow or destitute’s pension. They also have ration cards and are registered voters. Twice a year, Rs 900 at a time, is credited to their account as pension. The Guild of Service provides these widows Rs 100 a month as pocket money and most of them have bank accounts and know how to withdraw and deposit money. Their monthly earnings are used to buy a sari or some other necessity. Most of them have anything from Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,500 in their account, says Vimla, a coordinator with the Guild of Service. Some could have much more. On entering Aamar Bari, their stories are recorded by the counsellor. In their will they also name family members who should be informed in case of death and to whom they would like to leave their savings and other possessions. If no one comes after an inmate dies, Aamar Bari does the cremation and spends anything from Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,000 on it. Unless all the rituals are performed properly, the widows believe they will not attain moksha. In fact, they all spell out in their wills the kind of cremation they want performed. When Kaushalya, a popular inmate who loved dancing and singing died recently, her son was informed in Narsinghpur, Madhya Pradesh. He asked Aamar Bari to do the cremation and reached a few days later to feed all the inmates.
The kosh or fund created by the money left behind by the widows to the Guild of Service has Rs 20,000. When Ma Dham, being set up on 3 acres of land at Chattikara, near the entrance to Vrindavan for 500 widows and women in difficult circumstances, becomes operational this kosh will be put to good use. Vocational training will be the focus of Ma Dham. There is space to set up a production centre, but more attention will have to be given to bulk production of orders and marketing, whether for leather goods or namkeens. Though the foundation stone for Ma Dham has been laid and buildings are coming up, it has not been easy for the Guild of Service to raise funds for its ambitious project. A spiritual centre, a vocational training centre, a dairy farm, a tulsi farm, a turmeric field are envisaged at Ma Dham so that women can introspect, interact and gain in self esteem. Since Ma Dham is close to ISKCON’s Krishna Heritage, the Guild could have tie-ups with Krishna Heritage and ensure jobs for the women living in Ma Dham. Akshaya Patra is also thinking of getting back the women to roll out 40 to 50 per cent of the chappatis.
According to the 2001 census, nine per cent of the total female population or 34 million are widows in India. In 2004 there were 3.72-lakh war widows. Every fourth house in India has a widow but there have been few state interventions.
One intervention, aimed at extending social security benefits to widows is the old age pension scheme. Almost all states and union territories have old age pension scheme for those above 65 years. Andhra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have special pension schemes for agriculture labour. In Kerala, destitute widows of 40 and above are eligible for pension. Similar schemes exist in Orissa and Gujarat for a widow of 50 and 45 years respectively. Karnataka provides pension for widow of 18 years.
A widow is considered destitute if she is without any regular income and has no relation of 20 years or above, particularly a son or grandson and has not remarried. Widows without relatives, who do not own land or a house worth Rs 1000, who do not wear jewels worth Rs 500 or more or who do not have regular employment are also considered destitute. The destitute widow has to apply on a prescribed form to the tehsildar, who after verification and sanction dispatches the amount by money order. However, accessing the pension is a Herculean task.
The application forms are not easily available at the panchayat offices or if they are, the concerned officer gives them as a favour.
---- The forms are not user-friendly. The widow, most often illiterate, has to submit proof of age, duly authenticated by the prescribed authority.
---- The forms have to be submitted at the taluk office which is far off. The widows of Vrindavan have to spend Rs 10 to go to Mathura to submit forms. Follow up requires a couple of more visits.
---- Verification of the form is a long process. Most widows do not have birth certificate to prove their age. Often they pay a private doctor to get a certificate.
---- There is a great deal of arbitrariness on whether the widow is truly destitute or not. If she has a son or grandson, then the application could be rejected even if they don’t want to keep her.
---- Finally after all the effort, the pension obtained is grossly inadequate.
---- Culturally ostracised, socially marginalised, traumatised by personal loss, economically deprived, the widow is discriminated twice-as a woman and as a widow.
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