"Jab bhi raat gaye mere ghar chor aata hai, Garibi ki kasam mujhe bahut sharmindagi hoti hai"
This couplet aptly describes the humiliation forty five year old Thuru Ram faces every time someone visits the 8x10 kiosk he calls home. A collapsing wall supported by wooden planks, the roof-top damaged during the last rainy season now covered with some torn plastic sheets make up the living space for Thuru Ram who lives in Village Palth in Samba District of the Jammu region. Three old rusted boxes, a charpoy, the cover of a cassette player hanging on a wall, unwashed bedding and a quilt - is all he has to pass on to his nineteen-year old son Gopal Das Rasgotra who has been taking care of his father since the death of his mother years ago. Gopal is mentally unstable.
With an unshaven face reflecting tiredness, Gopal Das vacantly asks one question repeatedly- "Have you come from the city?" And then goes on to share - "You know that woman who lives in that big house? She threatens to kill me!" Or in a lighter moment, he clarifies, "A person who drives a bus is called Driver, no? And the person who bandages the wounds is called a Doctor, no?"
Despite the visible mentally disturbed behavior of his son, Thoru Ram does not consider him a patient and has, therefore, never even approached a hospital. Or it is probably because of his poverty that he never looked at his son from the lens that would ask for hospital visits, regular check-ups and medication. Everything stayed focused on arranging for the bread and butter for this two-member family.
And since Gopal Das is not registered as mentally challenged with the Social Welfare Department, he is not entitled to any pension.
While this is not the only destitute father-son duo in the village, many villagers from the same and nearby villages, facing extreme forms of poverty, have ignored the larger, alarming problem around them- the extent of disturbed mental health among people around them.
Take the example of forty-eight year old Bishambar Das (48), a labourer whose twenty-seven year old son Devi Das and forty-year old cousin Kalu Ram are both mentally unstable.
While the son has been afflicted since childhood, the cousin, Kalu Ram, had some minor mental instability to start with, but deteriorated rapidly after his wife left him, taking with her their two sons.
Villages of Samba's rural belt, en route to one of the most famous tourist destinations of Jammu- Mansar Lake, allegedly have a large number of cases where people are suffering from physical as well as mental disability but many cases go unregistered, especially the ones related to mental health. The weak socio-economic condition of these villages, namely Balole Nal, Balole, Mananu, Palth, Satah inhabited mostly by families belonging to Schedule Caste, is considered responsible for malnourishment which leads to such disabilities.
A worried Shango Devi, wife of Karnail Chand, holding her nine-month old baby boy close, believes that her son has not grown up like other children of his age. "Although he is now in his tenth month, he has the growth milestones of a five-month old."
Most families survive by being involved in menial jobs. Not a single person from these families is a government employee. Curiously, an interesting sight is the houses made of mud and wood, surrounded by lanes that are cemented!
District Social Welfare Officer of Samba, Jasmeet Singh, says that a few years ago, the Government had put a rider on the pension scheme for the physically/mentally disabled people, which have been removed since. "We have no shortage of funds to pay pension to any disable physically or mentally. There were 761 pension cases pending with the department which have been cleared now," shared Jasmeet Singh. To get pension under Integrated Social Security Scheme (ISSS), one has to simply fill a form, after which the applicant would get Rs. 400 as monthly pension.
He further said that there was no way for the department to identify the eligible cases; the Panchayat representatives are given the responsibility to identify and forward the select cases to Social Welfare Department. "Any person, whose application is forwarded by the Panchayat, receives pension from the department", he said.
Offering his help to those whose cases haven't been identified or forwarded by the Panchayat, he said that such people can contact him directly and he will make sure that he visits their village along with the doctor to fill their pension forms.
Contradicting the claims of Social Welfare Officer, Area Director, Special Olympics Bharat (J and K Chapter) Lalit Kumar, who has been conducting surveys for the last many years in District Samba, said that the ground reality was quite contrary to the claims of the authorities.
"In the year 2012, we had met the then Deputy Commissioner of Samba, Mubarak Singh, and when we talked him about the mentally/physically disabled cases, he had said that except for some cases left out, say, 50-60 cases, all the handicapped are receiving their pension. When we presented evidence contrary to his claims and showed how nearly 6,000 cases in district Samba are still pending clearance, he feigned ignorance."
Singh further said that there was widespread administrative inertia in all Government Departments. "The majority of mentally/physically challenged people are from poor and illiterate families who have no access to Government Departments. Even their applications are not considered- sometimes by the Panchayat Representatives and many a times by officials at the Social Welfare department," he argued.
Undoubtedly, unawareness on the part of beneficiaries is a crucial aspect that requires to be addressed before anything else. If they will be aware of the schemes meant for them, only then the gap between them and the Government officials can be filled.
(Posted on 15-02-2014)