Vrindavan: Financial independence can truly be life changing. This is a reality that nearly 800 widows living in Vrindavan, a temple town in Uttar Pradesh, are realising today as they find themselves being assiduously wooed by the sons and daughters-in-laws, who had once turned them out of their own homes, to return. Behind this remarkable change of heart is the fact that, at present, they are getting a tidy sum of Rs 2,000 as monthly stipend from Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a non-profit run by social activist Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, who has extensively worked on providing low-cost sanitation solutions in India.

Most of these abandoned women hail from West Bengal and have spent many a night on the streets, singing hymns and even begging outside the numerous Krishna temples that dot this town, to keep themselves going. Though sad and lonely, this sudden show of familial love has not only increased their pain but also presented them with a strange dilemma. As one 60-year-old puts it, “After they threw me out of the house, I had sworn that I would never set eyes on my son and daughter-in-law. But when my grandson calls me up these days and says, ‘Dadi, I am missing you, please come back’ my heart melts. I feel like rethinking on my decision.”

Suchitra Devi, too, is debating with the idea of making her way back to her son’s house in Bengal. One reason that is allowing her to consider the move seriously is the fact that she knows that the money she is getting now will not cease once she leaves. “I have discussed the matter at length with ‘bhaiya’ [Pathak] and he has assured me that the stipend will not be withdrawn for as long as I live,” she shares.

In mid-2012, in response to a petition filed by the National Legal Services Authority, the Supreme Court had enlisted Sulabh to help widows. Pathak had visited Vrindavan then, taken a note of the pitiable conditions in which the widows were living there and then announced a slew of measures that would provide them succour. The stipend is just one way of bringing about a change in their situation. “A sum of Rs 2,000 every month is a lot of money for a villager. This is why the women who had been ostracised earlier are being given importance again. The few who are planning to return have sought an assurance that their monthly stipend will not end once they relocate and I have told them that Sulabh will get bank accounts opened in their name and ensure timely transfer of funds,” elaborates Pathak.

Though the widows are certainly not complaining with this money coming their way, veteran activists do not believe that cash doles can solve any problems in the long run. Dr Mohini Giri, who heads the Guild of Service that runs Maa Dham, an ashram for widows in Vrindavan, is extremely critical of Pathak’s intervention. “India has 40 million widows. Can any organisation or individual dole out Rs 2,000 a month to all of them? What will come in handy are skills that can help them sustain themselves. In my ashram, we teach stitching, papad- and agarbatti-making, computer skills… just about anything that can enable them to gain the confidence to become independent,” she says.

Giri feels, “In a way, Sulabh is making these women indolent. I have heard that thousands of women are migrating from their villages to Vrindavan in the hope of getting this pension. Thirty widows from our ashram also decided to leave because they wanted this sizeable pension. I strongly feel that the objective of interventions should be to empower and not to create a dependency.”

Not at all surprised at the attention they are getting from their relatives, thanks to this monetary advantage, Giri warns, “If some of these women are tempted to return, I fear it won’t be long before they are robbed off their savings and pushed out once more.”

Pathak agrees with Giri’s argument that empowerment should be the ultimate goal, “During my interactions with the widows I have been telling them that apart from financial assistance they need to have basic literacy skills. So we are giving free education in Hindi, Bengali and English and even making efforts to provide them with vocational training in making garlands, incense sticks, sewing and embroidery work. Our aim is for them to gain economic self-sufficiency. Some of the widows who have mastered these special skills are earning better.”

Apart from the widows of Vrindavan, those living in Varanasi, the ancient temple town by the banks of the River Ganges, are getting a stipend as well. Bindeshwari Devi, 80, who comes from Bihar, feels she has little choice but to spend the rest of her days in the Durga Kund ashram where she shares a room with three other inmates. She remarks, “‘Khush rahein ya na rahein, rahena to yahein hai (whether I am happy or not, this is where I have to stay). It is not easy to adjust to the other women, especially when some of them have unclean habits and are very quarrelsome.”

How did she get there? Bindeshwari narrates, “My youngest daughter gave me something to eat and made me sign the property papers that gave her full ownership of my house. My two elder girls who live in Bhagalpur and Patna come and meet me occasionally but if I were to move in with either of them, I know they would taunt me about having ‘gifted’ my youngest the entire property. This is something I cannot hear all the time.”

“It’s all a matter of destiny,” rues Durga Singh, another mother of three daughters, who is languishing in an ashram. “If any one of my three girls had given me an old sari to wear and a dry crust of bread to eat, I would have lived with them. But once my husband, a farmer, died, it became clear that they did not want me in the house. I became the object of their derision,’ she says, her voice breaking with unhappiness.

What will give a definite boost to the spirits of these broken women – as also the work that social organisations like Sulabh and Guild of Service are doing for them – is the passage of the long overdue Bill that promises protection, welfare and maintenance to widows. “After the Supreme Court directive we did step in to help 1,400 widows but we are not in a position to help more women. If the government wants more women covered under this monthly pension, they will have to pitch in. The draft Bill was under discussion in the last session of the parliament but it has yet to be finalised,” says Pathak.

Over 100 widows from Varanasi and Vrindavan had made their way to New Delhi on International Widows Day (June 23) earlier this year in a bid to build up pressure for an early introduction of the Bill. Manu Ghosh, 82, a widow from Vrindavan, who was a part of the group, recalls, “We told Prime Minister Narendra Modi about how we receive a widow’s pension of Rs 300 a month, money that can barely cover even our basic needs.”

A uniform pension policy, access to adequate health care and respect from their loved ones – that’s all these hapless women need to reclaim their life, their dignity.

( Women's Feature Service)