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Vrindavan widow crack at Bengal

Lucknow, Dec. 19: Officials in the Uttar Pradesh government are accusing Bengal of not helping look after widows in Vrindavan.

On December 13, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Uttar Pradesh government and the Centre asking them about the rehabilitation of the widows. Replies have to be sent within 15 days.

The following day, the social welfare department here held a meeting where officials pointed a finger at Bengal.

“Representatives of West Bengal, from where most of the widows come, failed to turn up at many of the joint co-ordination meetings. We are trying to do our best,” a secretary-level officer in the women’s welfare department, which works under the social welfare department, said afterwards.

The meeting also decided to sanction Rs 3 crore to upgrade facilities for widows.

Bengal social welfare secretary S.N. Haque said the state government had sent a proposal on rehabilitation of widows in Vrindavan to the Uttar Pradesh government four years ago.

“But since then, we have not progressed much on the matter,” he said. “However, if the Uttar Pradesh government writes to the department now, we shall look into it.”

Haque said some members from the state’s women’s commission had also visited Vrindavan to see for themselves how the widows were living.

According to official estimates, there are around 10,000 widows in Vrindavan, of whom about 6,000 are from Bengal. NGOs peg the total number much higher, at 35,000, with 20,000 said to be from Bengal. The women, aged between 45 and 82, usually live in temples.

In 1999, a joint committee of chief secretaries of Bengal and Uttar Pradesh was formed to co-ordinate welfare schemes for the women, most of whom have been abandoned by their families. The two states were to share expenses and jointly monitor rehabilitation programmes. But this panel clearly has not delivered.

A petition filed in the Supreme Court early this month said: “For singing bhajans in a temple, they are paid Rs 18 a day, and are often seen begging.”

Water, a film by Deepa Mehta on the plight of widows in Varanasi — another temple town that draws widows from all over, especially Bengal — got an Oscar nomination in 2005 in the foreign language film category.

Social workers here believe lack of co-ordination between the states and the Centre is affecting rehabilitation schemes for which the Union government has been releasing funds.

Uttar Pradesh has set up three short-stay homes in Vrindavan — two using central funds and one with money sanctioned by the state welfare department — where about 500 women live.

Arti Srivastava, a deputy director of the social welfare department, said the state was planning to set up more short-stay homes with the help of NGOs. “Unfortunately, many of these widows don’t want to stay in the homes,” she said, before adding: “We have to add to the infrastructure.”

The post of additional secretary, social welfare — the official through whom the money for welfare was to be routed — is lying vacant for over a year.

A July 2007 study by journalist-turned-social worker Usha Rai reported that around 40 per cent of the widows in Vrindavan came for solace in a “place of God” while most others came because they had nowhere else to go.

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