Vrindavan continues to be a haven for many widows who prefer it to the stifling orthodoxy of their villages. Though food security is not a problem anymore, a lot still needs to be done in terms of social attitudes, access to government schemes, services and facilities, reveals a recent study.

It was a typical cold January morning and opposite the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple, Vrindavan, were a row of dhabas (shops) selling steaming hot kachories, fried in hot oil and served with aromatic potato gravy and pickles. Vrindavan is as famous for its kachories as it is for its rich, creamy milk, sweets and its myriad temples. Hardly anyone who comes to Vrindavan, whether it is an Indian or a foreigner, can leave the city without tasting the kachories and milk.

A rich, educated family from Gujarat was at the dhabas for morning breakfast. You could see the diamond studs in the man's ears, the wife was dressed elegantly in salwar kameez and close by was parked the Chevrolet car in which they had driven to Vrindavan. Their children of seven and 10 were also enjoying their pilgrimage to the holy city. The family was well bred and affluent. They had barely ordered breakfast when about a dozen poor and hungry widows, men and children approached them for a meal. The man did not get angry or shoo them off.

He asked all of them to sit on the roadside and asked the dhabawala to serve them whatever they wanted. He and his young children personally served the food to the widows and beggars. Even as they were eating, others joined in wanting to be fed too. Some had eaten elsewhere and were happy just to have a hot cup of tea. The rich man, who was in his mid-forties, did not get angry or impatient. He just ordered for more kachories for the newcomers. Satiated, one of the widows blessed him and left.

But in another part of the town, one witnessed a heart-wrenching scene and there was no one to help the widows. It was the first week of March and a few of us were doing the rounds of widows' homes, ghats, bhajan ashrams of Vrindavan before beginning enumeration on the poverty levels of widows for a study for Guild for Service and UNIFEM. Suddenly, in the middle of a fairly busy road with shops on either side were two widows slumped on both sides of the road. One looked very old and very sick and seemed at death's door. She was lying in a huddle on a plastic sheet and close by was her bowl, a glass and a stick. Barely two feet away was another widow hunched up and crying and wailing piteously.

People moved on as if it was a daily sight. The team from Delhi jumped off a tempo and tried to talk to the women. While there was no response from one, the other continued wailing. The shop keepers said the women had been lying there for a few days and the wails from the younger one never stopped. Having failed to pick them up and take them to a hospital, the Delhi team rushed off to the Ramakrishna Hospital close by and requested the Swamiji heading the hospital to pick up the women. He said a pickup was not possible but medical assistance would be provided if they were brought to the hospital and there was someone to stay and take care of them since the hospital was short of staff.

These are two contrasting facets not just of Vrindavan but of the entire Brajdham of Radhakund, Barsana, Gokul and Goverdhan that were covered for the poverty levels and the deprivation faced by the widows of Brajbhoomi. The study looked at deprivation beyond just food and shelter, for, as the Capability Poverty Measure of the Human Development Report 1996 indicates, lack of income is just one dimension of human poverty. Improved capacities are ends in poverty eradication. Improved incomes are means for poverty eradication.

The study, based on questionnaires with 520 widows, looks at indicators of socio-economic status as well as the attitudes to widows. It looks at literacy levels, the widows' ability to access various services and their own sense of self-esteem. It looks at the services and facilities available to widows from the central and state government.

No fear of starvation

The study very clearly shows that the widows have adequate basic food. None of the widows is in danger of dying of hunger or starvation. In other words, there is no food-related poverty. Chapattis and rice with dal and vegetables provide basic sustenance to rural India and this is true even in the Brajbhoomi area. Seventy-two per cent of the widows ate thrice a day and 25 per cent twice a day. All of them have the staple Indian diet of rice, chapattis, dal and vegetable.

Sanitation was an area of concern as two-fifth had no access to toilets and of those who did, 59 per cent said they were dirty. Although 58 per cent of the widows used the toilets where they lived, 40 per cent used open fields as they had no access to toilets and a seventh of the widows squatted over street nalas occasionally — indicating access to toilets was a problem.

Most widows (97 per cent) had access to water after going to the toilet, just 68 per cent had access to soap to clean their hands. A third of the widows (32 per cent) who did not have soap used soil and ash (rakh) to clean up. Most of those who did not have access to soap used soil (99 per cent).

Shelter is another area that needs intervention. Most of the older widows live in ashrams or government-run shelters. The younger ones are independent and prefer to live on their own, not bound by regulations of hostel and ashrams. More than half the widows (54 per cent) live in rented rooms/ spaces. Approximately a third of the widows live in the open — that is on streets, ghats, railway stations, bus stops and parks. For these women shelters are vital. They provide safety, security and a sense of well-being.

Because of their extreme poverty, widows avoid accessing healthcare till they have no option. But 80 per cent of the widows had fallen ill in the six months prior to the interview. More than half of those who had fallen ill suffered from diarrhoea. Other medical problems included frequent fever, arthritis, high BP, asthma and diabetes. In fact, after food, their biggest expense is on medicine.

Although widows get money from multiple sources — bhajan ashrams, charity, pension, domestic work, tailoring and candle making — the total does not add up to much. However, whatever money the widows get, they spend with their biggest expenditure being on food, followed by medicine, rent, clothes, travel and pooja.

By all definitions relating to income, most widows can be considered to be living in poverty. The majority (83 per cent) earn Rs. 200 to Rs. 1,000 a month, seven per cent less than Rs. 200 a month and 10 per cent over Rs. 1,000 a month. There was little or no financial support from their families. A small percentage did, however, get emotional support. By the World Bank definition of poverty (one US dollar a day or Rs. 48/day), the widows are paupers.

Even pension, however meagre, which is the right of every widow, was available to only a quarter of the widows interviewed. Knowledge of the pension scheme was high — 70 per cent of the women knew about it. Some had applied for pension but hadn't received it. Three-fifth (58 percent) had not yet applied for a pension. This was because they didn't know about the scheme, didn‘ t know how to apply for a pension (82 per cent) and didn't know who to bribe/ approach for pension. In fact, it seemed easier to get ration cards and voter's cards than pension. The UP government, however, says on its website that over 21,000 widows in Mathura district are getting pension.

Yet, the widows in the Braj area are happier than in their homes in the villages and most of them have no intention to return. They seem to be veering away from the traditional beliefs on how widows should live in terms of what they wear and eat. They do not believe in tonsuring their heads and some of the younger widows seem open to the idea of remarriage though many of them don't say so openly. They are rebuilding their lives and find less discrimination because of their widowhood. Most of them are able to enter the temples and some even attend auspicious ceremonies. In fact, one of the widows goggled her way to an ashram in Vrindavan.

Illiteracy and early marriage

However, they have their fears and apprehensions. Seventy-eight per cent of the widows, young as well as old, are afraid of sexual harassment; 63 per cent of not getting salvation (moksh), of falling sick, not being cremated with proper rites, of being homeless and hungry.

The widows' problems are compounded by their lack of education. Seventy-one per cent of widows had not been to school or had zero education. Seven per cent of the widows had studied up to Class II and six per cent up to class five.

Ninety-four per cent of the widows were married as children. Sixty-five per cent were married before they were 15 years, 27 per cent were married between the ages of 15 and 17 years. This clearly shows that despite various laws and efforts by NGOs to prevent child marriages, the trend of early marriages persists across the country and in rural Bengal in particular. Lack of education compounded by their early age of marriage and widowhood makes it difficult for them to cope on their own.

Early widowhood

Though a random selection of widows was made for the enumeration, it was found that 55 per cent were widowed before they were 35 years; 47 per cent were widowed between the ages of 18 and 35 years; six per cent were widowed between 10 to 17 years; two women were widowed when they were not even 10 years old.

Yes, economically the widows are still very poor. But the plus point is they have enough to eat, they lead life on their own terms and feel free in the land of Krishna.

The study has pointed out that the plethora of schemes for widows, the elderly and the destitute do not reach them. It has suggested a convergence of services on the lines of the model developed by the Delhi government and the windows-based graphic ICT tool called gram DRISHTI. It has suggested linkages between programmes for widows in the Brajbhoomi region and those in states like West Bengal from where the majority of them originate. At the same time, the government should move from its dole giving, welfare approach to building the capacities of this valuable human resource of 40 million widows.

Lord Krishna saved me

“I was married at the age of 15 to a 50-year-old widower. He had children from his first marriage who were also married. His married son stayed with us in our rented house. After a married life of 15 years, I became a widow. Although three children were born to me, two died soon after birth and the third lived for only five years. So I had no one. After my husband's death, his married son threw me out of the house. I went to live in my brother's house. But after some time, I realised I couldn't stay there forever. I was thinking about ending my life. However, before I could do anything, I heard about Vrindavan and how widows found a place to stay there. So I came to Vrindavan and have been staying here for the past 11 years. Lord Krishna saved me. Initially, I stayed at the Shyam Sunder mandir and worked there in lieu of food and clothes. Then I heard about Amar Bari, the home for widows run by the Guild of Service, and came here. I am happy here.”

Heman Das, 60, Ganjam, Orissa