The locked gates of the Gurap home run by Dulal Smriti Samsad. Picture by Sayantan Ghosh
During her two years at the Gurap home for women, Gayatri Devi saw a friend get murdered, many others die to be clandestinely taken away for burial, children denied milk and enough food, and women made to “pay” electricians and plumbers with their bodies.
Sitting on the floor of a large room at another shelter for women, with her two toddlers playing about her, she recounts her stay at the home in Hooghly that has been closed down amid charges that an inmate, Guria, was murdered.
Gayatri is not sure how many deaths she saw at Gurap. It could be eight or 10. She tries to remember the names: Tapasi, Kabita, Jharna, Chhabi, Pinky, Rupali, Bitiya....
Bitiya had a small son. Gayatri was friendly with her. She was also friendly with Guria, the 32-year-old mentally challenged woman whose decaying body was dug up from the premises on July 11.
Sulekha Ghosh, who ran the helpline at the home, says she handed over the files on 19 dead inmates to the district magistrate when the official visited the home after reports of Guria’s death made headlines. The deaths occurred between 2010 and 2012, at the rate of nearly one per month, says Ghosh. She adds the name of Anu Ghosh to Gayatri’s list.
Now the 80-odd women and children from the Gurap home have been placed in six shelters in Calcutta and the districts. Gayatri is in one of them on the city’s outskirts along with nine other adult inmates and three children.
She remembers seeing Guria’s body tied to a window on the ground floor after her murder. It was apparently left there because Uday Chand Kumar, head of Dulal Smriti Samsad, the NGO that managed the home, was away.
“Ï saw the body hanging below the stairs for five days. But where could we complain?” Gayatri said. “One day Shyamal Ghosh (the home’s de facto manager, arrested on the charge of sexually assaulting and killing Guria) entered my room and tried to drag me. But I beat him up.”
Kumar and 10 others too have been arrested and, like Ghosh, denied bail.
The home’s former inmates say Kumar starved them and would not get a doctor when they fell ill. They were barely given two meals a day and watery rice for breakfast. The children had to eat the same food. There was no milk.
When anyone asked for food, Kumar screamed at them or beat them. So did Ghosh, who they say regularly assaulted the women sexually, especially those who were mentally challenged and speech-impaired.
Since money was scarce, the home’s former employees say, Kumar sometimes paid outsiders who helped with repairs “with the women”. The plumber and the electrician, who too have been arrested, had easy access to the inmates.
One of the home’s two doctors was a quack; both were equally uninterested in their job. When an inmate was too ill, one of them would be called. But the treatment would often be ineffective and the woman would just die.
If she died in the daytime, her body would be wrapped in a bed sheet and left under the staircase. When night fell, it would often be taken away for secret burial to avoid the formality of producing a death certificate at the cremation ghat.
The next day, Kumar would slip in a “death certificate” written by himself into the file on the dead woman, the former employees say. They add that they were afraid to do anything.
The CID, investigating Guria’s death, has dug up two bodies from neighbouring Jamalpur, next to the cremation ghat by the river Damodar. The bodies are suspected to be of two inmates of the Gurap home. More bodies may be buried there, claim Jamalpur residents, used to seeing the home’s ambulance sneak into the ghat in the darkness of midnight.
The officer in charge of Jamalpur police station has been suspended. So has been the officer in charge of Gurap police station, for failing to have a post-mortem done on Guria’s body. The ambulance driver is behind bars.
All this happened although, according to the government’s Swadhar scheme under which the shelter functioned, the district administration should have been watching. It was not.
“Monitoring is the issue,” said Indrani Sinha of Sanlaap in Narendrapur, one of the biggest of the 18 Swadhar homes in the state.
Swadhar provides for an elaborate monitoring mechanism, led by a committee with the district magistrate, superintendent of police and other officials as members. None of the former employees ever heard of such a committee, even if it existed.
It’s clear that the district and block offices of the social welfare department too were resolutely looking elsewhere as women were tortured and at least one of them was killed at the home.
It seems government officials have sometimes to be cajoled into visiting homes for women. An NGO activist said that since the organisation was on good terms with social welfare officials, it was asked to write the reports itself that the officials would sign.
The last time a block welfare official, who should have been observing the Gurap home closely, reported on the Swadhar inmates was in June 2011. The district social welfare officer, in this case Rama Samanta, responsible for the well-being of home inmates in the district, did not speak to this newspaper.
The Telegraph made several attempts to speak to the Hooghly district magistrate and senior officials in the state social welfare department but received no response.
The administration thinks the police should have played a part. The police feel it would have been an intrusion to go on their own into a home for women. However, how the death and burial of so many women escaped their eyes remains unanswered.
Monitoring is dismal across the homes. Many Guraps could be waiting to happen.
It is too easy to blame the NGO alone, feel some observers. Dulal Smriti Samsad was responsible for the upkeep of the women at its shelter, but their condition testifies to the failure of the state and its welfare programmes.
Especially, the Swadhar scheme of the ministry of women and child development, plugged as “a scheme for women in difficult circumstances”.
Some 40-odd women at the home had been sheltered under Swadhar; the rest under various other programmes such as the short-stay scheme. Several of the inmates were mentally challenged.
Dulal Smriti Samsad received government funds under several schemes for its projects, which included a cottage home at a different spot in Gurap village and six crèches.
Swadhar, which means self-reliance, intends to empower women into independence. But the funds allotted make even the idea of daily sustenance, let alone independence, seem a farce.
Swadhar intends to provide shelter, food, clothing and care; emotional support and counselling; social and economic rehabilitation through education, awareness, skill upgrade; and personality development through behavioural training among other things. It also intends to arrange for specific clinical, legal and other support.
None of this comes free. But the scheme allows Rs 500 for food per inmate per month; Rs 25 for medical expenses per inmate per month; Rs 50 as pocket money per inmate per month. The allocation towards the salaries of home employees working under the scheme is Rs 25,000 a month.
An annual allotment of Rs 10,000 is made for the “recreation and development activities” of the about 50 inmates under the scheme. It comes to Rs 200 per head a year. So much for “development” and empowerment of the women.
The Gurap home received two grants of Rs 539,500 and Rs 104,500 on June 17, 2005, totalling Rs 644,000, and Rs 234,308 on June 22, 2007, according to a statement issued by the women and child development ministry on August 10, 2007.
“We try to provide nutritious meals to the residents, with fish, eggs and sometimes meat,” said Sinha of Sanlaap. “How is that possible at Rs 500 per head per month?”
At Rs 25 per month, what treatment is possible, Sinha asked. Forget hospitalisation or surgery. But the NGOs have to arrange for the funds, not only for treatment but also for vocational training, recreation, outings, legal aid, counselling.
The Swadhar scheme is not a permanent rehabilitation scheme; rather, it is aimed at integrating the women into the mainstream, said J. Mazumdar, executive director, Jayaprakash Institute of Social Change, Salt Lake, which runs a Swadhar home in Birbhum.
The woman who comes to a shelter is a destitute, a victim of trafficking or has been abandoned, Mazumdar said. She is alone, unsupported. Her self-confidence, in most cases, is shattered.
“But a woman cannot live in a home for 15 years. Or should not,” Mazumdar said.
For that to happen, the women need training on skills that matter, “not jam-jelly-achar-making”, said Mazumdar. But at Rs 200 a year per head for recreational and development activities, a woman cannot be taught computer skills.
Not even “jam-jelly-achar-making”.
Since keeping a woman at the same home for too long might expose the lack of development or empowerment, the inmates get shunted from shelter to shelter.
A woman who had lived at a Liluah home for 15 years was then transferred to Gurap on the plea that she “had become old”. She is 35. She used to look after a little boy, who had become her own after his mother died at Gurap. He has been sent up for adoption now.
Even the piffling allocations are almost always delayed. Sanlaap has not received its funds for the last three years, the Jayaprakash Institute home for one year.
“The Swadhar funds have been pretty irregular at times. We faced a financial crisis in 2009-10 and 2010-11,” said an official of the Janashiksha Prachar Kendra, Jangipara, Hooghly, where 41 former inmates of the Gurap home are staying.
“It’s unbelievable how we have to struggle. The women need square meals, treatment, vocational training, at least four sets of new clothes a year. We can provide them with these only because we get funds from other sources,” Sinha said.
Mazumdar said his institute’s home depends on the kindness of grocers, who are paid only when the grants arrive.
The funds are released by the Centre on a recommendation from the state social welfare department, which does so on receiving a report from its district office. The movement of the files can take months or years.
This breeds corruption, said Baitali Ganguly, head of the Jabala Action Research Organisation, which runs a Swadhar home for women in Murshidabad.
Although it has recently received the funds, it has often received them one or two years late and been forced to channel money meant for other projects into the upkeep of the home.
The situation worsened at Gurap whenever funds were delayed, which was quite often, say former employees. Several of them were not paid for months.
Manik Chandra Mandal, who did clerical work — the jobs were not well-defined — was entitled to a salary of Rs 1,500 but hasn’t been paid since September 2011. Sulekha Ghosh would sign for a salary of Rs 5,000 but receive Rs 2,500 — she hasn’t been paid even that since February 2012. A counsellor who signed every month for a salary of Rs 6,000 received Rs 5,000.
Even the homes’ licences are not renewed on time. Even if the papers are sent at the right time to the social welfare department, it takes very long to process them. So almost every year, for a few months, the homes are likely to function without licences, said Tapati Bhowmik of Sanlaap.
“The inmates, though they may be better off rescued from a difficult situation, are not happy to be at a shelter. They may try to escape. If such an incident occurs when our licence has not been renewed, we would be accused of being an unlicensed home,” Bhowmik said.
Ganguly agrees. She said that the bigger and better-run NGOs often suffer because of the delay in licence renewal while the smaller NGOs in the districts, many of which enjoy political backing, get their licences renewed easily.
Their political clout helps many such NGOs escape intervention from government agencies. They often get away with forging the number of their inmates.
Former employees at the Gurap home say Kumar regularly inflated the number of inmates at his home for the records, especially for the short-stay home scheme. He showed 25 inmates when there were nine or 10.
The government does not communicate scheme guidelines, Bhowmik said. How many visits to a home should an NGO expect from the social welfare department? Is there a number at all? No one knows.
Ganguly gave an example of the lack of transparency. The government has introduced the “Support to training and employment for women (STEP)”, but its rules and eligibility criteria are so complicated that few women can avail themselves of it in homes under Swadhar.
“The Swadhar scheme is faulty. It does not have any long-term objective. That’s because, like many government schemes, it’s a benevolent policy and not a rights-based one,” said Ratnabali Ray of Anjali, a mental health organisation in the city who had visited the Gurap home in its better days.
“What will happen to the women from Gurap now?” she wondered. “Does the scheme have any space for the voices of the residents to be heard?”
The six homes now sheltering women and children from the Gurap home are: Janashiksha Prachar Kendra, Jangipara; Sanlaap; Garden Reach Land Development, Ushti; Shaujatya, Garia; Chiranabeen in Howrah and the government home in Uttarpara.