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May 31, 1997


Is it all decided? Will we be made to go?"

The question, stark and simple, expressed the unvoiced fears of most inmates at the defence ministry's Paraplegic Rehabilitation Centre.

"Saab, aap ko maloom hoga (sir, you must be knowing)," the man, a paraplegic ex-jawan, one of the 75 inmates at the centre, wheeled his chair closer. "Will we be turned out? Will we have to go?"

For over six months now, this question has been weighing heavily on the minds of many inmates.

Will they have to go? If so, where? Back home? God forbid!

The 1974-started centre, meant for the 100 per cent disabled service personnel of the three armed forces, is facing severe financial crisis. So severe, in fact, that a whole wing (the 'D' block, with 30 beds) has been lying vacant for the past four years -- the limited government grants which the centre receives does not permit it take in any more inmates.

And this, while 30 disabled men, including tetraplegics, wait -- with no medical or other facilities -- to be admitted to the centre.

The authorities have now been planning to return some of the inmates to their old regiments to make way for the new. This, they feel, is the only option left to them.

"We need at least Rs 30,000 to take care of an inmate annually," explains the PRC committee ex-officio chairman Brigadier Mathew Mammen, "Against which we get just Rs 496,000 (for 68 inmates)."

And the army has to make do with this. "The balance is made up by donations. You can say that all our welfare centres (besides the PRC, the army also runs three other organisations) are surviving on private donations," Brigadier Mammen said.

Three beds at the centre have been sponsored, each at a cost of Rs 250,000, by private organisations. Some others contributed to infrastructure development. On the world disabled day, the PRC committee organised a fund-raising programme which raised nearly Rs 2 million. This, together with the Rs 2.5 million donation which the army chief made last year, has put the centre on a slightly better footing. The PRC can now afford to take in 10 more inmates.

In April, 1994, the PRC had written to the Union welfare ministry requesting Rs 1.8 million annually towards the pay and allowance of its staff under a special clause. But, to date, there has been no reply. The centre had similarly approached the Maharashtra government also. Again, no response.

"All over the world, when a soldier gets invalidated, he becomes the State's problem. Here, he is the army's problem -- that's the saddest part," said Brigadier Mammen.

With the number of disabled service personnel going up every year, the PRC need to find a permanent solution. "Earlier, paraplegics came here to stay. Now, we need to do something about bringing them back to society. Otherwise, we cannot manage," he said.

Thus, the plan to return the 'able' paraplegics to their old regiments.

"We are not considering the tetraplegics; they cannot survive outside. Only those paraplegics who can manage outside will be returned. It's not as if we are turning them out on the roads; neither are we sending them back home. We are trying to find them a place in their old regiments," Brigadier Mammen said.

"They should understand we are doing this to help others like them -- people who need the centre more than they do," he added.

Carefully, the attendant wheeled the inmate out to his favourite spot on the verandah. He liked to spend his evenings here, near this solitary bench at the extreme end of the corridor.

Here, it was quiet and peaceful. Seated here he, Anil Kumar, the wreck of a fighter pilot, could watch the other inmates going about their business. From here he could, in a way, share the life he was missing out even in this half-paralysed world.

Or else, he could read in comfort. The attendant would place the open book in his lap, its pages clipped together to prevent them from turning. And, every 10 or 15 minutes, he would come back and turn the pages. For, the only part of his body which Anil Kumar can move now is his neck -- and that too with difficulty.

"I am not interested in continuing this wretched life," he said, the confession escaping through unwilling lips, wrenched from the bottom of his heart. "But I take care of my mother -- I sent her Rs 3,000 every month. Do you know how that makes me feel?"

Anil Kumar is the only officer among the PRC's inmates -- and the one who sustained the most severe injuries. On June 28, 1988 -- he was just 24 then -- he broke his spine (cervical segments 4, 5 and 6) in a motor accident while returning home after a stint of night flying. Had his injury been a little higher he would have been dead. Even his breathing has been affected.

Today, he writes software programmes and articles on his computer -- and, occasionally, takes the cudgel in his fellow inmates's defence. When an article in the Indian Express recently accused some of the current inmates of blocking admission to more needy others, Anil Kumar had written back.

'The greatest attribute of the PRC is its ability to provide mental and psychological support to its inmates,' he wrote in the Express, 'The unstinting institutional help is the umbilical cord that sustain them, the lifeline that has helped them manfully face the challenges of life in a wheelchair.'

Even after the initial treatment, the invalids require lifelong medical care to prevent urinary tract infections, bedsores and pneumonia -- all of which, for paraplegics, is life-threatening. Urinary infections, in most cases, would lead to kidney failure, bedsores to septicemia and even a common cold, if not cared for properly, to pneumonia and death.

'The disability pension one gets is insufficient to employ even one attendant with reasonable degree of earnestness and then make a living out of the balance,' he pointed out.

Like Anil, many other inmates's families are dependant on the money they send home. Moving out would mean an end to this.

"But do the parents have any moral right to depend on their invalid children?"

Anil thought for a moment. "No self-respecting parent would ask for money, but a self-respecting son would definitely give without being asked," he said. "Let us face facts. Most of us joined the army not because of any patriotic motives, but because we needed to make a living. And our families do need the money we make."

Further, none of the inmates are confident they can make a living outside. Most of them are uneducated and are not trained in any vocation -- the work in the sheltered workshop on the campus where they assemble electronic connectors, they feel, wouldn't fetch them a job elsewhere.

"If the authorities want rehabilitation, they should start the process at the military hospital itself. Normally, a paraplegic is there for two years -- till he reaches the finality of treatment -- and that is ample time to teach him a vocation," Anil says. "Also once you are used to the atmosphere here, it is difficult to go back and adjust to the world."

The authorities, meanwhile, are identifying the inmates who, in their opinion, would be able to survive outside.

Unvoiced Fears
Will they have to go? If so, where?

PRC committee ex-officio chairman Brigadier Mathew Mammen

All Anil Kumar can move now is his neck -- and that too with difficulty.


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