They are not animals and they have a right to economic security and a decent standard of living

They are not animals, yet they are treated like one. Their hearts beat, yet they are hated for not being alive, of course, to their surroundings. They walk, talk (many times to themselves) and smile only to be ridiculed by the heartless and bashed up by the cruel. The life of mentally challenged men and women abandoned on the roads of Madurai is a telltale that requires an immediate attention.

The Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 20, 1971 asserts firmly that the mentally challenged are entitled to the same rights as other human beings. They have a right to proper medical care, physical therapy, education, training, rehabilitation and guidance that will enable them to develop their ability and maximum potential.

They have a right to economic security and a decent standard of living. They have a right to perform productive work or in any other meaningful occupation to the fullest possible extent of their capabilities. They should live with their families, who, in turn, should receive government assistance and if necessary admitted to an institution situated in surroundings as close as possible to those of normal life.

The Declaration also states that every mentally challenged person has a right to protection from exploitation, abuse and degrading treatment. But these rights are violated time and again by the ruthless with ingenuity, for the sole reason that the victims are hapless beings who are neither aware of their rights nor in a position to complain, protest or fight against injustice done to them.

It was a heartrending sight at a petty shop close to the Madurai Railway Junction on a Sunday evening when the shop owner marched furiously towards a mentally challenged person, slapped him on the cheeks, made him bend forward and hit him hard on his back. And the reason for venting out such uncontrollable anger was that the vagrant attempted to take an eatable from the shop in the presence of customers.

The irony remains that he was not the only victim of such inhuman behaviour. A glance into the news reports in the last few months shows a mentally challenged person having died after falling into a water body, within the Othakadai police station limits, after he was chased by a few children for fun. A woman was also reported to have been eating ashes from a cremation ground near Iyer Bungalow.

Of all, the most distressing news is of the female wanderers being used for sexual pleasures by anti-social elements. In 2009, a mentally challenged woman delivered a baby girl on the roadside at Melur near here. She was separated from the baby and sent to the Institute of Mental Health at Kilpauk in Chennai. Even after that reports of such women being raped continued to appear in the press.

It was a lawyer, S. Muthukumar of Anna Nagar here, who filed a public interest litigation petition in the Madras High Court Bench in February 2010 seeking a direction to the Madurai City Commissioner of Police to rescue the mentally challenged people abandoned on the city roads as per the provisions of the Mental Health Act 1987 and admit them in institutions meant for them.

After the case was filed, the city police sprang into action. A circular was sent to all Station House Officers and a special drive was organised to rescue the mentally challenged. As a result, a total of 70 people were rescued, produced before the judicial magistrates concerned, assessed by doctors at Government Rajaji Hospital here and then sent to different institutions for rehabilitation.

On March 4, 2011, a Division Bench comprising Justice N. Paul Vasanthakumar and Justice R. Subbiah had closed the PIL petition after recording the then Police Commissioner’s assurance that his department would continue to carry out the exercise at regular intervals as it was their statutory obligation under Section 25 (1) of the Mental Health Act.

Nevertheless, while disposing of the case, the judges gave liberty to the petitioner to approach the court once again if there was any kind of laxity on the part of the police.

“More than a year has passed since the case was disposed of and I can see that the enthusiasm shown by the police then has waned way due to efflux of time. Now, I am again able to spot many mentally challenged people on the roads.

“Recently, I met a police officer and asked him to rescue the woman who was reported to be eating ashes from a cremation ground. That insensitive officer refused to do it by stating that the High Court direction was only to the city police and not to those in the rural areas. I think it is high time that the judges cracked the whip once again in the interest of the ill-fated beings who don’t even know how to seek help,” he said.