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Crowded shelter where women starve, shiver, gasp and die

Uttarpara (Hooghly), Jan. 29: Shivering in the biting cold under a pitiless sky, they sleep on a half-full stomach, breathing through their mouths to keep themselves from gagging on the stench of faeces and urine. As menacing rats scamper about, they flail their thin limbs to shoo them off.

Some have the luxury of a blanket. Others don’t. Most of them sleep on the floor. Many suffer from life-threatening ailments.

No, this isn’t a scene from Auschwitz. This is every winter night for the women in the state-run Female Vagrants’ Home on Uttarpara’s Rajmohan Road, some 15km from Calcutta.

Records with Hooghly district police show that nine of these women have died in less than two months in the overcrowded home, meant to house 146 but sheltering over 250.

“It’s a miracle that more haven’t died,” said a police officer who recently visited the home after 48-year-old Purba expired of “septicaemia following lower respiratory tract infection”. At least, that what the records noted as the cause of her death.

Between November 1 and December 29 last year, the nine women died of causes known and unknown. Three of them -— Purba, Mina Devi, 53, and Supriya Dasgupta, 50 — died of respiratory illnesses. The cause of death of six others — Laxmi, 50, Nabanita Debi, 35, Rekha, 23, Tuku, 50, and Sailala, 68 — was recorded as “not noted”.

The home’s manager, Pritha Dhol, declined comment on the matter.

The last time doctors from Uttarpara General Hospital visited the home was nearly six months ago, a source in the home said. No matter that they are supposed to pay weekly visits and do routine check-ups of the inmates.

A senior doctor in Uttarpara General Hospital said “an acute manpower crunch” was the reason why doctors had not showed up at the home in a while.

“It is unclear why so many died in such little time. They were brought here, but most had died by then,” said the doctor who did not wish to be named.

The National Human Rights Commission, according to its internal database, has received 30 complaints of rights violations of the inmates in less than two years. It has even conducted a probe and done several studies on the home. But there has been no improvement in the quality of life of the inmates as the rights panel has passed the buck to the state government.

A senior NHRC official said the panel’s report was forwarded to the Mamata Banerjee government, with recommendations on infrastructure, healthcare, hygiene and training of caregivers.

“We have done our job and it’s for the government to implement the recommendations,” said the official.

The state human rights panel too had ordered a government probe following the escape of 11 inmates in December 2012. But Nabanna sources said the investigation report has yet to be submitted.

A December 2013 report from the state intelligence branch, which looked into the deaths, blamed them on the sub-human living conditions in the home caused by lack of infrastructure, overcrowding and absence of resident medical officers.

“Studies conducted by the NHRC indicate that most inmates are suffering from various psychoses, schizophrenia, mood disorders, epilepsy, retardation, hysteria or substance abuse and need regular specialised medical attention,” said the source.

Experts said the treatment for such conditions was highly specialised, which the Uttarpara home was not equipped to provide.

Urmi Basu, the founder-director of New Light, a Kalighat-based NGO that works with women and children in red-light districts, said the problem lay in the lack of effort to improve the quality of the inmates’ lives and the absence of adequate post-trauma care.

“Unless they get proper post-trauma care and there is a substantial change for the better in their lives, this will continue. Most of them, when they arrive, are already suffering from serious sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and other life-threatening illnesses that need intensive attention and care. That, sadly, is missing,” said Basu.

There are 10 homes for vagrants in Bengal under the social welfare department run by minister Sabitri Mitra. These homes also offer shelter to leprosy patients and lunatics.

The Uttarpara home takes in women vagrants above the age of 18 and is supposed to provide them three square meals a day, adequate clothing, healthcare, education, recreation, security and scope for rehabilitation. The vagrants are usually identified and escorted to the home by police, often under a court’s instructions.

The social welfare department has a budgetary allocation of Rs 434.25 crore, of which Rs 121.09 crore is to be spent on the welfare of women and Rs 35.63 crore on that of the aged, infirm and destitute.

However, the Uttarpara home does not have enough space to accommodate all its inmates, which is why a large number have to sleep outdoors. The government has set aside only Rs 1,250 a month per person, including Rs 940 for food. As the home shelters over 250 women, the government effectively spends around Rs 18 a day on food for each.

According to the department’s estimates, the allocation is “extremely meagre” considering the average current prices of basic food items in Calcutta.

“A litre of milk costs around Rs 30, a 500gm loaf of bread costs Rs 17, a kilo of rice costs around Rs 35, an egg costs Rs 5, a kilo of chicken costs Rs 165 and a kilo of apples costs Rs 125. Is it humanly possible to put together three nutritious meals a day for an adult for Rs 18, even if none of the funding is misappropriated?” asked a department official.

He likened it to a 2011 Planning Commission affidavit before the Supreme Court, which had sparked widespread criticism by defining a person living below the poverty line as one unable to spend over Rs 32 a day in an urban area or Rs 26 a day in a rural area.

“There is Rs 20 a month per scheduled inmate for personal hygiene. Even a tube of toothpaste that would last a month costs no less than Rs 23,” the official added.

Minister Mitra, who visited the home days before the first of the deaths took place, was unavailable for comment.

The department secretary, Roshni Sen, said the government was “acutely” aware of the problems of the Uttarpara home and those of the other homes too.

“We are already working on implementing the NHRC recommendations. We have asked the government for more funds and space to improve infrastructure,” said Sen.

According to her, the department had tried to get doctors for the facility thrice last year but failed. It has now been assured medical support by the health department, which would “soon” send a team of doctors under the Hooghly district’s chief medical officer to the home.

Sen said there was “dire need” to drastically reduce the “burden” on the homes.

“If we have a capacity of 1,000-odd in all these homes put together, there are over 2,000 inmates. Most are mentally ill or challenged. Some are AIDS patients. Many refuse treatment, care, clothes and even food. These people need the kind of attention these homes are not in a position to provide. This is something I have been repeatedly pointing out,” she said.

According to her, the Bengal Vagrancy Act, 1943, required amendment.

“Some provisions of the act, framed before Independence, are ludicrous. The act talks about getting hold of vagrants from the city and packing them off to the districts, and includes beggars within its ambit. This has been brought to the notice of the concerned department (law and judicial),” she said.

A Nabanna official said these issues needed to be addressed by the government “as a unit”, with departments like public works, finance, health and law working together.

“We, as a government, are collectively responsible for these inmates, our fellow citizens. We must act accordingly and act now, before more lives are lost,” said the official.