[AI] Varanasi's disabled: Desperate measures

Rohiet A. Patil patil_rohit at dataone.in
Fri Sep 7 10:47:10 EDT 2007

Dear friends, 
I am pasting hear the feature from infochange india regarding varanasi incident. It contains all the details regarding what happen there. 
Read this entire article. Your comments are expected regarding the same. 

Caught between local leaders, the state administration and the media, five disabled men in Varanasi died recently in a protest that went horribly wrong.
Our correspondent travelled to Varanasi to find out what motivated their desperate act

The bizarre death on August 1, 2007 of five physically challenged men protesting against a decision by the Varanasi city administration to take over their
roadside kiosks sent shock waves throughout the country.

The five men who died were Rajesh Maurya from Muslimganj, Gurudev from Raveritalab, Tribhuvan from Gulabagh, Ram Chandra from Bajediya, and Mangaroo. All
were in their mid-20s and early-30s. Three were married and were bringing up young children; the others were taking care of aged parents.

What was appalling about their death was that the five men, who were in a group along with seven other disabled men, reportedly took poison in the middle
of one of the most crowded streets in the Gurubagh area, in the heart of the city. All 12 men lay on the road, writhing in agony, for over two hours. No
one came forward to help them. The police station in Laskar is a mere 300 metres from the spot, but no policemen came to assist them.

A reason for this could be that 'faking suicide' is a tactic increasingly being resorted to in the city. A whole spectrum of people, including disgruntled
members of various political parties, pretend to take poison -- but actually take sleeping pills -- and feign death for a couple of hours in order to put
pressure on the administration to give in to their demands.

These 12 men were no different. They resorted to their 'fake suicide' bid in order to persuade the municipal corporation not to evict them from their makeshift
kiosks. The municipal corporation, however, was on an anti-encroachment drive and refused to listen to the men's repeated pleas to be allowed to continue
working out of a space they had been using for several years.

None of the men were mentally handicapped. Of the 12 men who took the poison, four were lame while five were paralysed from the waist down.

Rajesh Maurya and Tribhuvan ran paan shops and earned over Rs 100 a day. Both men would arrive at their kiosks in wheelchairs by 9 o'clock in the morning,
and work till late in the evening.

Ram Chandra, Gurudev and Mangaroo, who were paralysed from the waist down, managed to run their kiosks with meticulous patience and care. They kept cheap
grocery items in their shop, while the other men sold knick-knacks including clothes, toys and household products.

Tribhuvan's neighbour and friend, Mohammed, says: "The local people here had a great deal of sympathy for these men and would try and support them. They
knew that for them to survive in the cut-throat world of today was quite a daunting task."

Before resorting to the 'fake suicide', the men had done the rounds of various offices, in their wheelchairs, and had distributed pamphlets warning the
authorities of the 'action' they intended to take. The time and place for the 'suicide bid' had been spelled out, and pamphlets had also been distributed
to local newspaper offices and television channels in Varanasi.

Tribhuvan reportedly told one of his close friends who came to meet him at the BHU Hospital before he died: "I thought the tablet I had been given to eat
was the sedative Diazepam. I was told that it would make me unconscious for a few hours and then I would be all right again. (I was told) the government,
seeing my condition, would be forced into giving us money and an alternative worksite."

Doctors at BHU Hospital and Shiv Prasad Gupta District Hospital confirmed that the tablets given to the men actually contained a poisonous pesticide. Activists
in the city ask: why were the men given the poisonous sedative? Were they victims of a larger conspiracy, or was their death merely an accident?

Varanasi mayor Kaushlendra Singh admits that the men had indeed met him several times in the past few months. Three months ago, they had warned of resorting
to suicide if the administration did not allow them to continue working in the Gurubagh area. Singh's office received several letters from the men, pleading
to be allowed to continue working in Gurubagh.

Apparently, this drill was repeated three years earlier when the men received eviction notices. Then too they warned of mass suicide.

"I used to feel very bad when I listened to their grievances. But the problem is that despite being a mayor I possess neither financial nor administrative
powers, so I could do little to help them. I did take the matter up with the concerned authorities and pleaded with them to provide them alternative land
in Beniya Bagh. But no one was willing to hear me out," Singh says.

Singh holds the Municipal Commissioner Lalji Rai responsible for pushing the men over the edge. When they went to see Rai, the commissioner is reported
to have told them off, saying: "Meine lule langron ka theka nahi liya" ("I am not willing to take on the responsibility of the lame and the disabled").
According to Singh, these words were the last straw.

But local activists believe that the men's decision to 'fake' suicide was not triggered by these words alone. They question the role of leaders like Namo
Upadhaya and Ravi Bannerjee who function under the banner of an NGO called Mahadev Viklang Sangh and who are reported to have distributed the 'sleeping
pills' among the men, assuring them that taking the tablets would ensure that they received widespread media coverage.

Varanasi's Senior Superintendent of Police S P Shirodkar says they have issued an FIR against both Upadhaya and Bannerjee on the basis of a complaint lodged
by Ram Lal Kesari. Both men are currently under arrest; no one is being allowed to meet them. "The FIR clearly spells out that one tablet each was given
to all the physically challenged persons who had gathered at a spot in Gurubagh to protest the anti-encroachment drive. These men were obviously misled
by politicians and their leaders," says Shirodkar.

But the families of the deceased believe there's more to the situation than meets the eye. Seventy-five-year-old Champa Devi, Mangaroo's mother, is beside
herself with grief. She lives in a crowded mohalla near Tulsi Ghat, and told one of the local activists: "Mangaroo may have been an invalid but he looked
after me better than a lot of men look after their mothers. Every evening, when he came home, he would give me his earnings. And he never questioned me
if I decided to buy something for myself or for the house."

Champa Devi adds: "Obviously, they had become an embarrassment to the authorities. I can't say who was behind their murder, but someone played dirty with
them. These men had been running from pillar to post trying to save their kiosks. Nothing was done to help them. Getting rid of them was an easy way out."

Ram Chandra's wife, Asha Devi, who is the mother of two handicapped boys, one of whom is blind and the other lame, is equally distraught. She is illiterate
and helped augment her husband's meagre earnings by selling vegetables on the roadside every evening. "When Ram Chandra returned home, I would go out in
the evening and earn a little money by selling vegetables. Now it will be very difficult for me because who will look after my two handicapped children
when I am out working," she asks. Suddenly, she adds: "There is so much illegal occupation of land in the city. The police thana in Laskar is itself known
to be an unauthorised structure. The authorities will not target the rich and the powerful. The handicapped are easy prey."

The relatives of those who died insist that the agitation had been building up for some time. Three years ago, Tribhuvan swore he would hang himself if
he was moved out. "The authorities were dealing with people who are so vulnerable. Instead of showing some consideration they just rode roughshod over
them," says Asha Devi.

S N Singh, the handicapped welfare officer in charge of the physically challenged in Varanasi, believes he cannot be held responsible for the plight of
these people. "The Uttar Pradesh state government did a survey some years ago which determined that there are around 16,230 physically challenged people
living in this city. Of these, 12,000 were found to be earning less than Rs 1,000 per month," says Singh. "These 12,000 men are being given Rs 150 per
month as assistance. This is given twice a year, in two instalments of Rs 900. We also help provide loans of up to Rs 10,000 to help them buy shops or
start small trade outlets. This loan is returned at the rate of Rs 500 per quarter. They are also allowed free travel by railway or by bus."

Singh is willing to concede that life is an uphill struggle for the physically challenged, especially as avenues for employment remain scarce. The state
government has allocated a 3% quota for the physically challenged, but this quota is seldom filled, says Singh.

He holds the leaders of these men responsible for the recent mass suicide. "They built up a hysteria around this shifting. They could have explained matters
to them in a calm and more reflective manner instead of bringing the issue to the boil. These handicapped people adopted a confrontationist approach and
that is how matters came to a head."

A further twist to this sad tale was added with the administration deciding to target two mainstream news channels, Star News and CNN-IBN, for instigating
the men to take the drastic step. A local resident has also filed a case against the channels, accusing them of complicity. But media sources believe these
channels were singled out because they had taken a strong stand against Chief Minister Mayawati on corruption charges.

District Magistrate Veena Kumari justifies the action being taken against the television channels. She says: "We were close to arriving at an agreement
when this incident took place. I understand one of the TV journalists is related to one of the handicapped men. We are looking to see if he and his colleagues
could have instigated them. Nothing is being ruled out."

While a magisterial inquiry is on, the National Human Rights Commission has served notice on the district authorities and asked them to provide all the
details pertaining to the incident. Meanwhile, Varanasi's approximately 20,000 physically challenged inhabitants have been left completely demoralised
by this shocking chain of events.

InfoChange News & Features, August 2007

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