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Be the change that you want to see
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May 15, 2007 17:44 IST
Last Updated: May 15, 2007 18:11 IST

Rahul Mehra and businessman friend Shantanu Sharma had first hit the headlines in April 2000, when the two -- good friends and ardent cricket fans -- decided to take on the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

They filed a Public Interest Litigation (Read the PIL here) in Delhi high court, accusing the Board of gross mismanagement and fiscal malfeasance, and asking the court to take action.

The BCCI had argued at the times that as an autonomous body, its doings were beyond the purview of the courts. In a landmark ruling, the Delhi high court said the BCCI was very much in the public domain, and hence accountable to the courts, and thus to the people.

When tragedy struck his sister Pallavi Chubey and her newborn baby, Sharma decided that something had to be done. With friend Rahul Mehra, Sharma filed a Public Interest Litigation (Full text here) in the Delhi high court on behalf of the bereaved couple, with Shantanu Sharma named as principal and citing the Union of India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the New Delhi Municipal Council, the Central Pollution Control Board and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee as respondents.

"It was an intolerable situation," Mehra says, "an insult to our society, to the core values of humanity itself."

Mehra and Sharma spoke of how, when little Raghav Chubey died, they had done the rounds of the various crematoria and burial grounds in the national capital, and had been told that as per unspecified Hindu scriptures, the traditional Hindu last rites could not be administered to a child below the age of three.

"I researched on the Net, I spoke to people well versed in the scriptures, but no one could point to any definite clause that makes that prohibition.

"What religion, what scripture, could in any case be so heartless, so cruel, as to deny an unfortunate child a final resting place?" Mehra asks.

Logic, however, was getting them nowhere; yahan nahin ho saktha hai was the refrain wherever they went.

That was how the Chubeys found themselves in Bachcha Ghat � and the Municipal Corporation and other worthies in court.

On May 9, Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court Dr Mukundakam Sharma and his companion judge Justice Sanjiv Khanna directed the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to permit the cremation of dead infants in all crematoria and burial grounds within its jurisdiction.

They directed the MCD to put up notices in the various crematoria announcing -- in Hindi and English -- that the cremation of dead infants is permitted within the premises.

The court also ordered that the petitioner could approach the court with any further grievances on the subject. In the event the MCD fails to comply with the court's order in letter and spirit, the court said, the petitioner would have the recourse of filing a contempt petition against the MCD.

The problem, says Mehra, is not confined to Delhi alone. "My understanding is it is prevalent on a national scale, and most definitely exists in the 'holy cities' of Haridwar, Varanasi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Patna, et cetera."

He says that the proscription is, at best, based on some "old Hindu tradition which was being blindly followed till date.  Even though no religious text speaks of consigning un-cremated or partly-cremated bodies to the river, the practice is rampant.

"Per rituals, it is the ashes that are immersed in sacred rivers.  However, human corpses and animal carcasses can be seen floating in various stages of decay in various ghats such as Nigam Bodh Ghat, Bachcha Ghat and other such places in Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur and Patna, among others."

Mehra points out that the order passed by the Delhi High Court is not binding in other states, but "the order could have a persuasive value in other high courts across the land."

In other words, people facing similar problems elsewhere in the country can now go to court to force the authorities to reverse a morally repugnant trend, confident that the precedent is in place.

"I don't take up every cause that comes my way," Mehra says, when asked about his activist bent. "In fact, ever since I successfully filed the PIL against the BCCI, I have been flooded with individuals and organisations wanting me to take up various issues on their behalf.

"Most of them fall within the domain of what I call 'Personal, Private or Publicity Interest Litigation'," says Mehra (a good example, though the young Delhi-based advocate is too polite to give it, would be the petition filed against Richard Gere and Shilpa Shetty for supposedly having done unspeakable things to the moral fabric of the country).

"I get one such case every week or two, but till date I have declined all such matters. I do not take up a matter unless there is a calling, and I passionately believe in the cause." Ensuring that those children unfortunate to die before they have even lived are given, in death, the dignity that is their due is one such cause, Mehra says.

To this end, besides filing the PIL, Mehra and Sharma have been discussing with various NGOs the option of "constructing, maintaining and managing a safe, decent, hygienic and convenient cremation/burial ground in Delhi exclusively for children below the age of three years.

"We are also in the process of getting a piece of land allotted to them for the purpose, from the relevant government authorities."

Mehra and Sharma have set themselves a target of Rs 1 crore for the purpose -- and they say the response thus far has been heartening. "Friends, family members, even business houses we have contacted have pledged money," Mehra says. "The trick now is to find a reputed organization to front the project."

The two friends have no intention of heading it up themselves. "It is not something an individual can do -- especially since it involves more than just collecting funds. There is the actual construction, the responsibility of maintaining the crematorium -- it needs a good NGO to front the project; I am hoping that some NGO interested in attaching itself to such a cause will come forward, soon, so the work can begin."

But if the court has ruled that cremation will be permitted in the existing facilities, where then is the need for private efforts to build and maintain a new one?

"Fair question," says Mehra. "Firstly, when we went to Bachcha Ghat, we were told that as many as 25-30 children, on average, are brought there every day for the last rites.

"If that figure is even close to accurate, it then indicates there is is low acceptability -- due to religious beliefs, rituals/customs, preconceived notions and perceptions, among the community about crematorium facilities and cremating their young ones on a funeral pyre.

"Besides, just going by numbers alone, there is clearly a need for a facility devoted to them, a place where grieving parents can perform their last rites, give their beloved children one final farewell, with respect, honor, and dignity.

"As clearly, our elected representatives have neither the time, nor the inclination, to worry about such basic amenities, such requisites of basic humanity, of decency. That such a situation exists in the nation's capital -- a place where you cannot walk 100 meters without tripping over the memorial to some dead leader or the other -- merely adds insult to injury.

"Maybe such a private effort can drive the message home, maybe it will serve as a wakeup call for the members of the capital's administration. Maybe such an effort will cause our representatives to hang their heads in shame.

"At least, we can hope. And," says Mehra, for whom the issue clearly has struck a very deep chord, "remember the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you want to see. This is our way of living up to that ideal."

Read Also:

Full text of Rahul Mehra/Shantanu Sharma's PIL on Bachcha Ghat

Images from Bachcha Ghat

Full text of Rahul Mehra's PIL against the BCCI

Full text of the Delhi High Court judgment against the BCCI

Note: In recent times, we have been obsessed with the 'obscenity' of an actor kissing an actress on the cheek; of an artist giving visual expression to the world as he sees it � while the real obscenities, scars on our collective conscience such as Bachcha Ghat, go unreported, unlamented.

Is there something in your neighborhood, your environment that angers you; is there some issue, some pressing matter of public concern, you think should be reported, brought before the authorities?

Write in with details to Prem Panicker.

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