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Updated: December 5, 2010 23:30 IST

Cruel social practices and role of investigative reporting

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The Hindu

That insightful, sensitive, and focussed coverage of social problems and issues by the news media can play an agenda-building role even if the direct impact is limited is borne out by this investigative story of a fatal oil bath published in a recent issue of Tehelka magazine (November 20, 2010). It began like this: “An exercise in love and health when given to newborn children, a ceremonial beginning to festivals, and the universal answer to pitiless summers. In Tamil Nadu's small industry hub of Virudhunagar, however, it is the beginning of ‘slow murder.' The marker of the devastating poverty that makes a son kill his own ageing mother.” This is one of a large number of articles on the darker side of social life that the magazine has been publishing for nearly a decade.

“Mother, shall I put you to sleep?” brings to light how a section of people in this commercially advanced region of southern Tamil Nadu — a State often described as “progressive and prosperous” — have found a “less painful” solution to the existential challenge of confronting penury .

The investigation discovered a small trend, shocking in itself but capable of growing into a social menace if it was not addressed at its root. Younger members of some families were pushing their infirm, elderly dependents to death because, it was explained, they could not afford to take care of them. The deadly modus is known locally as ‘thalaikkoothal,' a leisurely oil bath. This is how they go about it.

The elderly person is given an extensive oil bath before dawn. The rest of the day, he or she is given several glasses of tender coconut water. (Ironically, this is everything a mother would have told her child not to do while taking an oil bath.) The Tehelka reporter quotes a practising doctor in Madurai as explaining that tender coconut water, taken in excess, brings on renal failure. By evening, the body temperature falls sharply and in a day or two, the old man or woman dies of high fever. The method does not generally fail because, as the doctor further explains, “the elderly persons often do not have the immunity to survive the sudden fever.” The investigation found further that local folk have other deadly tricks up their sleeve, procedures such as “milk treatment” and “thrusting mud dissolved in water down the throat,” which is “the most painful of the lot.” Killer injections and poisons were resorted to at times. A strange and poignant aspect of the inhuman practice of doing away with old people is that it does not, according to the Tehelka article, provoke anger or fear among those marked out for murder. The typical attitude is one of “helpless resignation.” The entire thing is taken as “an accepted practice,” which a doctor claims has been in use for more than three decades. The district collector, who has expressed his shock over the incidents, has arranged for an investigation by the administration.

The Hindu, in a couple of reports published in 2008, warned of deteriorating economic conditions in the region, which had forced younger people to migrate to towns and cities looking for jobs and leaving their parents and dependants in villages to fend for themselves. “The problem of elders,” one of the stories noted, “is compounded by the absence of employment caused by successive failure of monsoon.” Another report revealed that Valandur, Karumathur, Keeripatti, Pappapatti, and some other neighbouring villages had a strange but common practice of the elderly being “dispossessed by their families once they became non-contributors to household income.

This phenomenon of children looking at their parents as a burden that could not be carried along was first noticed by National Service Scheme volunteers of Arul Anandar College.” The Principal of the college said that it was a painful issue; it was the prevailing economic condition that determined the phenomenon of inclusion or exclusion of the elderly people.

That this was the very region where more than two decades ago intrepid journalistic investigation brought to light the atrocious social practice of female infanticide and subsequently female feticide. The expose by a popular Tamil magazine developed into a countrywide movement against this cruel practice, which was justified and rationalised by the families, citing desperate poverty. The media, print as well as broadcast, were in the forefront of a campaign for tough and effective legislative and regulatory measures to eliminate the practice .

The hope is that Tehelka magazine's recent expose of the equally heinous practice of doing away with aged parents and dependants, by whatever name called, will give an impetus to the government's efforts to take care of senior citizens who cannot look after themselves. The key will be effective action, backed by adequate resources, in the villages of India. Inasmuch as the economic policies of governments at the Centre and in the States contribute to the widening of disparities in income, wealth, and living conditions and to the inexorable rise in the prices of essential commodities, the state must accept primary responsibility to remedy the situation and, at the very least, provide effective relief. As has happened in the case of most welfare legislation and social policy measures, the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act enacted in 2007 has not been implemented sincerely. This becomes even more important in the context of rising longevity in society and the substantial increase in the number of senior citizens in recent decades as part of the development process.

The Hindu's Open Page has carried several insightful articles in recent months on this challenge facing rising India. My hope is that the main news section and the feature sections of the newspaper, and also other major newspapers and magazines, will give more space to these issues and cover them in a sustained way, so that they get more public and policy attention.

All people are against corruption, and a lot has been said and written. We have to change the system. We need a strong judiciary and a strong, neutral Anti Corruption Department with a mechanism to punish the guilty.

from:  Hari
Posted on: Dec 10, 2010 at 14:44 IST

I have gone through your article. It is high time mediamen changed their attitude towards social problems. Even today the commoner has a great respect for the fourth estate. Let us hope that so called corporate journalists do not mislead the general public and their burning problems.

from:  Ramakrishna Ogirala
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 17:06 IST

I cannot blame these murderers of their parents. They do not do this out of greed for ancestral wealth or any motive other than inability to find a humane solution for the problem of having an aged parent whom they cannot afford to feed at the cost of starving their own children. Hopefully, this is an economic and not a social measure. I get the feeling, reading the article, that the inconvenience factor might also be contributing to elimination of the elderly among people who do not have economic restraints. We do many cruel things. Parents sell their children, mothers selectively kill their girl-children (before or after birth hardly makes a distinction), parents are abandoned in mental hospitals and places of pilgrimage and so on. We have documented cases of cannibalism. Add one to the list. As long as these are done out of economic necessity, I can feel the pain in the perpetrator's heart. When we were nomads and our parents could no longer keep up with us on our marches in search of food and pastures, they used to let the tribe go on ahead and wait for death by the wayside. When we started living in villages, we had Vanaprastha, where the aged parents would wander away into the jungle to die, far out of our sight (I remember the Ballad of Narayama, where, in a Japanese setting, this turns almost banal). An individual act of cold-blooded murder or even cannibalism, we can condone. But to extend this condonation - which is actually commiseration as we share the perpetrator's mental anguish - to a blanket sanction and the roots of a social practice is pernicious. And, unfortunately, this is what normally happens.

from:  Jayadevan
Posted on: Dec 9, 2010 at 03:58 IST

As we have several incidents in Kerala this is a social problem, this is not as explained for lack of food. On the other hand they have money but there is none to take care of them, mostly they are alone in their home. Kids were out of the country.

from:  harish
Posted on: Dec 7, 2010 at 18:04 IST

I read your column every week without fail. A good compendium of all vital issues carefully and meticulously recorded week after week. But this one takes the cake. We have magazines ,newspapers and TV Channels, dime a dozen in TN. But it required a Tehelka to expose this and you to bring it to the national attention. Many thanks to you Sir, and please continue this good work. We expect more and more from you.

from:  Dr.J.Amalorpavanathan
Posted on: Dec 7, 2010 at 08:17 IST

Looks shocking and reveals the true character of human beings as a selfish animal. Gone are those days people looked up to their parents as human figurines of gods and goddesses and the prevailing air is that of complete sycophancy. Hope that the government does the needful such that issues of human right violations such as these are addressed effectively.

from:  Kaushtav Das
Posted on: Dec 6, 2010 at 20:09 IST

This is a shocking revealation and you are right that entire media should cover this as a movement against this evil practice.
If we think that 2G scam and commonwealth game scams are more important for national coverage than this then probabably we do not deserve to be called ourselves as "responsible citizens".
The only way to stop this horryfying practice is to galvanise public opinion against this in all possible manner. And here the media has to play pivotal role since they always see themselve as true torch bearer for removing all evils in the soceity.

from:  P Srinivasan
Posted on: Dec 6, 2010 at 16:04 IST
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