Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Where do they go?

After India was partitioned , in one his most memorable short stories, the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto's famous character Toba Tek Singh, an old Sikh patient with no known family on either side of the border, collapses awaiting a transfer as an unwanted asset . His last words are yelled out with raised fists and announce victory to all sides, making the patrolling troups laugh. Irrational and fantastic as such divisions become on the ground, never mind the original intentions, the dark comedy of the life and death of Sirdar Toba Tek Singh unmasks the real tragedy of our times, where do the ill and the unwanted go when 'assets' are being divided ?
When I watch the mentally ill, I am struck by the different pace of life they seem to lead and the need for a gentle, careful handling of their needs, mental and material. A recent report in The TOI quotes the WHO's prediction that by 2020, almost 20% of Indians may be suffering from mental illness, of whom 5 to 6% may be moderately ill but almost 5-6% may need regular medication . Multiply these percentages by our actual population figures and the numbers revealed are staggering . Given the lack of money available in most families with many mouths to feed and a general reluctance to incur the expenses for a mentally ill member, most of them end up in government run hospitals .
Since there remains a lack of professional precision at the core of our policy making machinery where the welfare of these lost souls is concerned, there are very few inexpensive government hospitals for the mentally ill . What complicates this further is that for the last decade or so several physically large and populous states such as Uttar Pradesh(UP), Bihar, Madhya Pradesh(MP) and mostly recently Andhra Pradesh(AP) have been split into two . Great squabbles follow over the crucial question of dividing the prized assets arises between two such states . After the secretariat buildings, each state wants as many Hospitals, including mental institutions and educational institutions in its fold. When the hill state of Uttarakhand was carved out of UP and the famous mental asylums at Bareilly and Agra, remained in UP , bitter questions arose . Would the UP government continue to extend subsidized services to old patients from Uttarakhand as it had done for several decades ? The answer was no! even though many such institutionalized patients had no family or homes to go back to . Sorry, said the government, we have limited budgets and our people need all the subsidized care we can provide . Likewise when Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar, the well known mental institution in Kanke was allocated to the new state of Jharkhand declared its inability to go on providing subsidized services to patients from Bihar , even those with no known addresses or families .
And now political expediency has split the erstwhile state of AP into Seemandhra and Telengana . Of the 6 government run mental asylums three ( located at Nalgonda, Medak and Mehboob Nagar districts) stand transferred to the new state of Telangana and the other three ( located in Vajaya Nagaram, Kaddappa, and Prakasam districts) remain with Seemandhra . Since the mentally ill are low in the priority lists of all from the state governments, as are the families, no one has yet raised the ticklish question of states exchanging their mentally ill . But the question has not died . It has just been put on the backburner .


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