| Lawyer and human rights activist Kanchan Gaba leaves Presidency jail on Thursday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
A crusader for the rights of the disabled is not the only thing Kanchan Gaba wants to be known as. So, now, the feisty record-breaking mountaineer and Calcutta High Court lawyer — who also happens to be blind— has earned herself another title: Scholar of Peace. The President’s Award winner for her work with the Bharat Scouts and Guides has won a grant to conduct a study on the plight of women prisoners in the jails of West Bengal from the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, an NGO headed by The Dalai Lama.
“Most people feel that the disabled can only work for the rights of the disabled,” says the 26-year-old activist while leaving Presidency jail on Thursday, where she spent the day interviewing around 30 convicts. Kanchan has visited the Howrah jail as well, and the one-year study is to include seven jails in the state.
“Those with challenges can work for the welfare of others. Given a chance, we can contribute to the greater good,” stresses the masters’ student specialising in international law. She is also an active campaigner and counsellor with a number of NGOs for the challenged.
The Rs 141,000 grant, under the Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace programme covering SAARC nations, includes Kanchan’s research and a sensitisation seminar. She has been designing the research since July, and has just started fieldwork, which will take her to jails in Jalpaiguri, Barrackpore and the state’s only all-women’s facility in Purulia. Conditions for women inmates in the prisons, including sanitation, nutrition and education, are her focus.
“These are supposed to be correctional homes. Do they actually have the facilities to be able to reform, not just imprison'” asks the lawyer, whose legal experience (she has set up her own practice with a friend) has brought her close to the plight of those “languishing in jail”.
While the laws are in place to protect the rights of the prisoners, finds Kanchan, there is no real implementation. “Most of the women are poor and illiterate, and aren’t used to much better amenities at home. They feel that, being a jail, conditions must be bad,” she adds.
On Thursday, Kanchan interviewed three mothers with children staying with them in the jail. One had two children, aged one-an-a-half years and the other just two months. “What have they done to deserve a life in jail'” questions Kanchan.
It is with “excitement and emotion” that the women have greeted Kanchan. “Many have been asking for legal advice. They want to know whether appeals to a higher court could help them.” Others are already familiar with Kanchan, having heard about her through the media. Most, so far, have been cooperative.
Past experience — like with the IAS exams — has taught Kanchan that blind people are often not accommodated by the administration. With this scholarship, fortunately, Kanchan’s qualifications were enough to see her through.