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September 7, 1999


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Issues 99/ Vidyakar

'Does the society expect me to work in isolation?'

I was trained as a social worker. My intention initially was to work for the underprivileged, not as a charity worker. But after I managed to save a girl child from a gutter 15 years ago, my ideas changed. Udavum Karangal was born to give a helping hand to such abandoned babies. When I look back, I feel there were only very few orphans and very few distressed people in the city then.

My idol is Mother Teresa and my ambition is to be able to wipe the tears of all the distressed people. I was so hopeful in the beginning. But as years pass by, my hope is slowly vanishing. My present state of mind is such that I am really frustrated. I am living in a society where people want to dump a sick or an old human being and run away. I am ashamed to say but people look at Udavum Karangal as a dumping ground.

I am frustrated because it is very difficult to tackle the major problem that we face today -- AIDS. Despite the awareness programs started by the government, nothing has changed. Almost all the men and women we pick up from the street are AIDS patients. The government talks about putting an end to female infanticide in certain pockets in Tamil Nadu. Let me ask, what about the female babies that are abandoned almost everyday here in this city itself? I feel we are trying to work on the problem at a very superficial level.

I will describe the people as aware and insensitive. When I first started this organisation, not many were aware of what we were doing. Now, people call and tell us if they see an old man dying on the street or an abandoned baby crying from a dustbin. At the same time, people have become insensitive.

Earlier, many youngsters hesitantly and with a feeling of guilt used to ask us, 'Can I admit my old mother here? There is nobody to look after her at home.' Our home is for the destitute and orphans and not for those who have a family, I used to tell them. Now, people want to dump their old parents and grandparents somewhere and they don't feel guilty at all. Values have deteriorated a lot in the last 15 years.

The other day, a lady came and asked us whether we would keep her mother-in-law here. The reason she gave was "Why should I look after my old mother-in-law now that my husband is no more? I was related to her only through my husband. Now I don't think I should take care of her."

I have 1,500 inmates. That is, 1,500 orphans. Ours is the largest social organisation here but so far I have not received any help from the government. It is not that the government is not aware of us. They remember me whenever they need any help. They have used me and misused me. But as far as help is concerned, nothing has come to us. Is it not a shame that not even a single government official has visited us, a place that keeps 1500 orphans?

When there was a problem in the Premananda Ashram, all the girls there were officially handed over to me. They were here for two years! When the Bangladeshi children were caught, they were here for eight solid months. The government officials conveniently forgot about them after dumping them here. The police stations, the welfare department, the hospitals refer cases to us but never bother to offer any help to us. Money does not fall from heaven. We have to beg for each and every penny to run this organisation.

I will tell you another incident. A few months back, we found a lady from the street who was mentally sick. She had diabetic ulcer and a gangrene foot. She was pregnant and HIV positive too. When her delivery neared, none of the hospitals in the city, which include government hospitals, was willing to admit her. I even contacted the hospital for communicable diseases. But they declined.

Another HIV positive pregnant woman from our organisation was taken to a hospital in a stretcher. She was brought back after five hours in the same stretcher. Dead, unattended. It was all because I informed the hospital authorities that both these women were HIV positive. Let me ask you, in a democratic country like India, how can you deny a sick woman her legitimate right to be treated?

What I am trying to say is, what is the role of the government in dealing with an issue like AIDS? Where will these people go? Incidents like this make you feel frustrated. Was I asking them to treat a relative of mine? As a member of the society, if I look at it as my responsibility to look after her, it is the responsibility of the doctors also to attend to her. Does the society expect me to work in isolation?

The Tamil Nadu government collected Rs 50 crores (500 million) to the Kargil fund. Well, it is good. But let me ask, how can they forget the orphans who lie outside their doorsteps, who crave for their help? The government should learn to look at the problems that some of the unfortunate citizens face too. It is the duty of the government to take care of sanitation, health and education.

We criticise those who defecate in the public. But how many public toilets do we have? If at all there are public toilets, they are unclean and unusable. People donate a lot of money to religious organisations but do not do so to construct a public toilet.

I am frustrated because I am here to serve those who are destitute and orphans and not those who are made orphans and destitute by the community. But I feel very happy when youngsters from colleges and schools come here as volunteers to do their bit. Ultimately, what makes my work or my life worthwhile is when I see a little girl who would not have been alive if I had not rescued her from a gutter growing up. The smiles of those hundreds of children make me forget all my frustrations.

Vidyakar, who runs the largest organisation for orphans in Madras, spoke to Shobha Warrier


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