Last week, the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW) sent a notice to the Delhi government in which it made some shocking observations about the Asha Kiran complex, which houses government-run homes for the mentally disabled in Delhi.
Conducting a surprise visit on February 4, DCW chairperson Swati Maliwal observed that the premises of the facility had “dirty toilets, nude inmates and mentally challenged persons crawling on the floor”. According to the notice, residents were being made to do chores, wheelchairs were not in use, children were sleeping in the cold, mattresses were not provided because of bed-wetting, etc. The Commission was also informed that 11 deaths had occurred in the homes in the past two months.
None of these observations on Asha Kiran are unfortunately new. Media, civil society members, and government officials have been making similar observations about this place at least since 1998. However, nothing seems to have worked in favour of the six institutions inside the complex. The Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court have also issued directions many times, but neglect and government apathy has meant that nobody – not even the recent AAP government has done anything for the home. And things are unlikely to change, unless concrete steps are taken. The big question is: Will the AAP government do so?
A History of Abuse
That all has not been well at Asha Kiran has been known for more than a decade now. One of the first reports about the homes is an order by B S Gahlaut, the then Chairman of a Juvenile Welfare Board in Delhi, in 1998. In his order, Gahlaut writes that one House Aunty was looking after 15 “M. R. juveniles (mentally retarded juveniles)”, working 144 hours a week, apart from doing various chores, and earning Rs. 1000 a month, and wasn’t given any specialised training. Gahlaut’s order also notes deaths of five inmates at the home in a single day in August 1998. This included an 11-year-old child.
Through court documents and media reports, one can track how problems at the home multiplied after ‘98. RTI replies sent by Superintendents of the homes in 2014, for instance, showed that Asha Kiran housed 890 inmates against its capacity of 510. From 2009 to 2014, 185 inmates died at the home, of which 51 died in 2014 alone. If one starts counting since 2001, the number of deaths is over 500.
Audit reports of the Delhi Government’s own Directorate of Audit and reports of the CAG too reveal overcrowding and staff crunch, apart from other irregularities, at Asha Kiran through the years. In addition, despite overcrowding, these reports also reveal how every year funds allocated for the home remain unspent in some homes.
A Test Audit Note (TAN) for the School and Home for Mentally Retarded Persons (SHMRP) (Adult) for 2013-14, for instance, notes that there has never been any physical verification of fixed assets and consumable materials at the institution . The note says that it was therefore not possible to verify whether “consummable/non-consummable items purchased were actually available in the office”. Remarks like these and many others involving shoddy bookkeeping appear multiple times, suggesting that even though the home receives funds, the funds are not being used judiciously.
This lack of any action to change things at the home is the result of a deeper rot, according to Anant Asthana, the advocate in the High Court petition and a child-rights activist. “Treating a human life as worthless because their life expectancy is not certain, (thinking that) if this person is not going to live for long why work hard and give them services and care- that is the attitude which I call deeper rot,” he told YKA. “From ’98 onwards, there has not been a single occasion when the government has done anything for Asha Kiran on its own,” he adds.
Asthana’s comments are not unfounded. Concrete steps, if any, were initiated after a petition in the Delhi High Court was filed in 2011. Delhi Government made several assurances until December 2016, when the Supreme Court disposed another petition. The government assured that it had initiated measures to change things, including, among others, the formation of a Governing Council and an Advisory Expert Group Panel (AEGP). The Governing Council was empowered as the decision making body for Asha Kiran. The AEGP was to assist the Governing Council temporarily in making recommendations.
Asked whether any of their recommendations were implemented, Dr. Nimesh G Desai, a member of the Governing Council, told YKA that the Department of Social Welfare was better equipped to answer the question. He said, however, that the Governing Council has not met “in last 2 or 3 years”.
A superintendent employed at the facility until last year told YKA that the last meeting of the Governing Council was held in January 2015. He also said that the facility has not had an administrator since B.S. Banerjee, the former administrator, left in January 2016. When contacted, The Deputy Director (Disability) in the Department of Social Welfare of the Delhi Government, refused to comment on the issue.
What Can Be Done
Members of the AEGP cite failure of implementation of recommendations made by it as one of the prime reasons for the home’s condition today.
“That’s why you are seeing this happen over and over again. Nothing really changes,” says Radhika M Alkazi, who was a member of the AEGP. “What happens in the making of a policy, in the development of the person- none of that changes. Those were the fundamental changes that we needed,” she added. She explained that the report they brought out had suggestions on multiple aspects- from the structure of the management to the personal kit requirements of residents- that could fix Asha Kiran permanently if implemented.
Poonam Natarajan, who was also involved with the process of recommendations, believes that homes have to be smaller for them to be manageable. Asthana believes recruiting permanent staff for personalised supervision of the children and mechanisms to monitor the expenditure of allotted funds can change things.
The Supreme Court too has asked various state and central authorities established under the 1987 Mental Health Act and the 1995 Persons With Disabilities Act to remedy the situation and file reports later this year.
Natarajan though points out that “there is no will” on the part of government to change. “They need to do something permanent. Har din thoda sa cosmetic change se nahi hoyega wo (a little cosmetic change every day won’t solve the the problem),” she said.
Whether the DCW’s notice will then jolt the government into action or be just another failed attempt at fixing Asha Kiran now depends on the government and its will to do something for the residents of this home.
Featured image for representation only.