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Widows in Ashrams - A Study of Sulabh International in Vrindaban

Most elderly women residing in Vrindavan live in abject poverty, the reasons for which range from the social outcome of misogynistic traditions or starvation due to extreme poverty. Not cared for by their own families or wishing to escape potential abuse, widows form a large proportion of aged women that seek refuge in this holy town. A large majority belong to rural areas in neighbouring states, the result of being illiterate and unaware of their basic human rights leaving them with little choice but to accept substandard rations, poor living conditions and the routine of begging for alms at bhajan ashrams.

The Department of Women and Child Welfare, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the Department of Food and Supply, the Municipal Corporation of Vrindavan, the Mathura and Vrindavan Development Authority and the District Magistrate are the concerned authorities for the management and care of this particular demographic. Compelled by conventions and laws designated to protect aged women, the state and district authorities have created multiple schemes aimed at this population, by providing shelter, food at subsidized rates under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, old age and widow pensions and at times healthcare in the form of camps, distribution of wheelchairs, crutches and walking sticks.

Under the overarching National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) administered by the Union Rural Development Ministry, widows are entitled to receive assistance either under the Indira Gandhi National Widows Pension Scheme (for widows between the ages of 40 and 64 years), Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (for persons above 65 years who by government criteria are living below the poverty line) and the Annapurna Scheme granting free food grains (for senior citizens not receiving any pension). However, a study undertaken by the National Commission for Women (NCW) revealed that there were many issues related to the implementation of the pension scheme by the concerned authorities. In addition to the issue of eligibility, many destitute women, being illiterate, were either unaware of existing schemes or the procedure for applying for them.

Taking note of the overall poor standard of living and the lack of regard for disposal of the bodies of deceased aged women in Vrindavan in accordance with the customary rites, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) in its social justice litigation filed before the Supreme Court of India sought amelioration of the living conditions of the many destitute “Vrindavan Widows” (a collective term given to all women residing in the town). The Legal Services Authority under the chairmanship of District Judge, Mathura reported back to the Court, that in many homes for the widows no food was provided and that the widows usually used the rations they received under the Antyodaya Annapurna Yojana, purchasing food grains with the money earned during the day, most often not exceeding Rs.4.00

The National Legal Services Authority reached out to Sulabh International requesting the latter to examine the possibility of providing assistance to aged women living in ashrays and ensuring adherence to traditional customs to be observed after the death of any widow, owing to its background in social work. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the organisation, stated that Sulabh’s involvement became a commitment after his visit to the town. Initially hesitant, Dr. Pathak decided to step in on humanitarian grounds, deeply affected by the miserable conditions of the aged women in many parts of the town, most of whom had no access to any healthcare or consistent and dignified opportunities to earn a livelihood.

While the operation of the Sulabh Pension and Medical Welfare Scheme was not intended to interfere with or replace the existing management of these ashrays, most of which are either handled by the local government or an NGO, the intervention resulted in better coordination between the organisation and the local caretakers.

This report focuses on the project implemented by Sulabh International in the following ashrays:
• Meera Sahabhagini I & II
• Ramanuj Nagar
• AIWC, Taraash Mandir
• Chaitanya Vihar I & II

In addition to the homes mentioned above, Sulabh International also provided limited assistance to:
• Radha Tila: Monthly allowance of Rs. 2000 along with access, when and if required, to an ambulance provided to one of the other ashrays if available.
• Guild for Service, Ma-Dham: Provision of an ambulance for the residents

The project aims at addressing financial instability, nutrition and health as they have been seen to be the most urgent concerns of aged women. However, it is not limited to these issues alone. Recognizing the need for mainstreaming widows in Indian society and in order to improve their overall quality of life; a number of social and vocational activities have also been undertaken. Since the project came into existence the activities conducted have the buy-in and acceptance of all concerned legal authorities, thus ensuring that the needs of the project automatically get incorporated into the mandate of the local District Legal Services Authority (DLSA).

Implementation Strategy Sulabh International has extended assistance to aged women in the ashrays by providing:
• Rs. 2000 per month as allowance to each widow for food and other personal expenses.
• Medical facilities including five ambulances made available for eight ashrays, treatment is available for widows whose prescription drug costs are not covered by the government in addition to covering costs for operations for various ailments and diseases.
• Vocational training as well as language classes is provided.
• Arrangements for celebration of major festivals including Holi, Raksha Bandhan, Diwali and Christmas and group outings to New Delhi or Calcutta during Durga Puja.
• A helpline for widows in need of assistance.

Instructed to take up residence in Vrindavan by her children who could only afford to take care of her injured husband, Srimati Rai (77) relied on alms received from singing in shifts at different bhajan ashrams during the day, earning anything between Rs. 300 to 700 a month, most of which she saved in order to go home once a year to her village in West Bengal to visit her family and take care of her husband. Currently a beneficiary of the Sulabh Pension and Medical Welfare Scheme, she asserts the most positive change in her life to be the newfound sense of comfort in her daily routine that allows her to study Bengali while still receiving a steady allowance. Admitting that she initially had doubts about the benefit that would accrue to her if she were to study at such a late age, she stated that she felt a sense of accomplishment at being able to read and write.

The distribution of the monthly allowance is made during the visit of the accountant on the 5th day of every month, while the medical treatment is arranged through the Sulabh staff working in Vrindavan. Vocational training and language classes (Hindi, Bengali and in some ashrays, English) are imparted through instructors hired locally, while festivals are celebrated with logistical support and under the supervision of the main Sulabh staff including the founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak. Group outings are conducted bi-annually, for which a limited number of widows are selected on a rotation basis.

The project is implemented to varying degrees across eight different ashrays, covering approximately 800 widows. In some ashrays, Sulabh International’s role is limited to providing support through a dedicated ambulance, while in others all activities are undertaken in cooperation with other organisations. With respect to the activities listed above, Sulabh International is the key implementer, working in coordination with local NGOs already overseeing the operation of their respective ashrays.

The project is handled by a team of seven or eight persons lead by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak and executed chiefly by Mrs. Vinita Sharma. The management strategy adopted aims at ensuring that the needs of the beneficiaries, as and when they arise, are addressed immediately. Describing their approach as a 24x7 commitment, the local resource person for Sulabh in Vrindavan, Mr. Krishna, opined that it was the only project in the area so far that involved the beneficiaries in their own progress.

Replication of the pension and medical welfare scheme in Deoli, Uttarakhand and in Varanasi has been found to be successful. While the beneficiaries covered in Deoli include all dependents affected by the deaths that occurred due to the June 2013 flash floods in the region, the project in Varanasi covers150 widows living in circumstances similar to those in Vrindavan.

  Meera Sahabhagini I & II Ramanuj Nagar Taraash Mandir Chaitanya Vihar I & II Radha Tila
Allowance Rs. 2000 pm Rs. 2000 Rs. 2000 pm Rs. 2000 pm Given by Sulabh International Rs. 2000 pm
Medical Facilities Ambulance provided and treatment of ailments undertaken Ambulance provided and treatment of ailments undertaken Ambulance provided and treatment of ailments undertaken Ambulance provided and treatment of ailments undertaken  
Vocational Training and Language Classes Sewing and incense stick production; Hindi, English and Bengali classes Sewing and incense stick production; Hindi, English and Bengali classes   Sewing and incense stick production; Hindi, English and Bengali classes  
Celebration of Festivals and group outings Organized by Sulabh International Organized by Sulabh International Organized by Sulabh International Organized by Sulabh International  
Management Uttar Pradesh Government, under the Swadhar Yojana Ma Sharda (Local NGO) All India Women’s Conference (AIWC)    

Innovation in the Project
Most beneficiaries interviewed revealed that the regular inflow of the allowance distributed by Sulabh had the greatest impact on their overall sense of contentment and comfort. The inability of most aged women to seek employment and the inadequacy of the pension that a few of them received were viewed as factors that contributed to poverty. The practice is innovative since it supplements the finances of the beneficiaries directly, providing not only financial security but greater purchasing power. The allowance system implemented in this project is viewed as unique since no other organization or agency in the area had executed such a plan prior to Sulabh’s intervention. Allowances and monetary benefits have mostly been the mandate of the government by way of various schemes and plans.

Impact of the Project

i. Monthly Allowance
The monthly allowance is considered to be the most significant factor in bringing about positive changes in the lives of the widows covered by the project, both by the beneficiaries as well as the project officers. All women living in the ashrays covered by the Sulabh project receive their monthly allowance, supplementing whatever income they receive by way of pension from the government that often arrives in arrears. Aged women who were earlier unable to find a means to earn due to severe geriatric problems no longer depend upon others for sustenance.
Making use of the monthly allowance of Rs. 2000 given by Sulabh International, the widows independently prepare their own meals which usually consist of staples such as lentils and rice, and seasonal vegetables. Women who are too unwell to prepare their own meals are either assisted by the ashray cook or helped by other widows.

ii. Medical Facilities
Doctors visit the ashrays at least once a week. In addition to providing an ambulance, Sulabh also sponsors the cost of treatment of widows who require treatment for their eyes, teeth and other illnesses or disorders. Many widows in these ashrays expressed their appreciation of the project which enabled them to receive the medical attention they required, mostly related to failing eyesight and high blood pressure. The practice is executed across all ashrays and applies to all widows. The effectiveness is apparent – many women sport spectacles, and all those covered by the treatments report higher levels of satisfaction and comfort. While eye camps organized by the government are able to aid only a limited number of women, Sulabh organizes eye camps with doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi and arranges for operations whenever needed.
Draupadi Jha (72), a patient suffering from liver stones, was operated upon within a few days of complaining to a Sulabh employee and she expressed her gratitude to the staff for their attentiveness and prompt action.

iii. Vocational Training and Language Classes
While the vocational training being imparted at the ashrays covered by the Sulabh project would not ordinarily be considered innovative, the context within which it is delivered could qualify as such. Traditionally, widows in India are denied their right to any form of independence or self-sufficiency. By providing vocational training to the widows in the ashrays, the project ensures they acquire skills that would enable them to generate some income. On the other hand, the aim of providing language lessons is not for income generation but to develop their sense of self-worth and confidence, as displayed when they are able to sign their names instead of validating documents with their thumbprints.
The effectiveness of the practice is reasonably high as seen among those who opt for such vocational training and classes. With respect to sustainability, such measures are seen to be cost-effective and can be easily replicated in other scenarios.
Parul Dasi (70), one of the ladies engaged in sewing work, explained that her reason for taking up sewing was due to an initial interest in learning how to do so. It became a regular activity when she realized that it gave her peace of mind besides enabling her to spend her time in a productive manner.

Sulabh’s project for rehabilitation of the residents of Deoli, Uttarakhand includes providing vocational training for the widows and youth of the area. Apart from candle-making, sewing and computer classes already being taught, the organization is also planning on introducing embroidery and carpet-weaving, the products of which would be marketed for sale.

iv. Celebration of Festivals and Outings
Outings take place at least twice a year – once to Kolkata for Durga Puja, and once to Delhi. A select number of widows are taken for these outings. Besides these trips, widows are free to go and pray at nearby temples. All major festivals, including Holi, Diwali and Christmas, are celebrated by all the residents and organized by Sulabh International. The celebration of festivals manifests change in the lives of the widows who were earlier excluded from all auspicious occasions and celebrations, even in their own households. The model is also easily replicable and involves a high level of community participation. Kunjalika Dasi, another resident of Meera Sahabhagini-I, attributed the increased sense of community to the celebration of festivals such as Holi and Diwali.

The project has received positive attention in the media, with most focusing on the more visible components of the project – the celebration of major festivals such as Raksha Bandhan, Holi and Diwali have received the most coverage as innovative and tradition-breaking practices.

Other Details

  Meera Sahabhagini I & II Ramanuj Nagar AIWC, Taraash Mandir*** Chaitanya Vihar I & II Radha Tila
Active Ageing* Yes Yes   Yes  
Daily Chores/ Errands** Yes Yes   Yes Yes
Meals Prepared individually Prepared individually Provided by AIWC Prepared individually Prepared individually
Counseling       Counselor employed only at Chaitanya Vihar-II  
Housing       Interaction with the residents (including children) in a welfare home situated in the same complex  
* Elements including any form of vocational training, language courses or any other economic/non-economic activities. A majority of the homes covered provided training in production of goods or language courses. It must be noted that the concept of active ageing studied in these homes is limited to those women who voluntarily take up such activities, therefore in all instances one must understand that active ageing applies to a limited extent only.
** Chores and errands are personal in nature and on a regular basis involve buying vegetables and rations, cooking, doing own laundry and the like
*** An overwhelming majority of the residents of AIWC Taraash Mandir are very old and suffering from geriatric problems, due to which they are neither able to cook their own meals or run their own errands. They are therefore living with the assistance of two caretakers. The monthly allowance received by them is mostly used for purchasing medication, vitamins and other miscellaneous sundries.

Future Commitments

  • The need to conduct a study in order to ascertain the exact number of aged women in need in Vrindavan has already been noted by Sulabh International and is up for consideration with possible partners who can assist with the logistics of carrying out such a census. Since the aged women are residing in scattered areas, different agencies have arrived at varied estimates, ranging from 800 to 1790, with some reporting even greater numbers.
  • Sulabh International, having established the Sulabh Hope Foundation, is currently engaged in inviting funding from outside of India for the purpose of constructing a new ashray to house the widows covered under the project.
  • The organisation’s founder, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, has been lobbying for the passage of the Protection, Welfare and Maintenance of Widows Bill,16 the features of which include an allowance of Rs. 3000 per month to each widow, medical aid, free accommodation, provision for hiring teachers for the purpose of education and vocational training. The products made can then be sold by the government. The Bill would also seek to establish boards at the state level for the welfare of destitute and abandoned widows. Involvement of the legislature for the purpose of enacting laws complementary to the aim of the project would add to the overall sustainability of the project by incorporating elements of strategic dynamism with optimal use of pre-existing state mechanisms.


  • During the course of visits to these ashrays, a few suggestions pertaining to the daily lives of the residents were put forward by the widows themselves. Srimati Rai (77), a resident of Meera Sahabhagini-I, spoke about the need for harmony and dignity that she believed was lacking due to widows having to share accommodation. Citing frequent arguments and the ensuing tension between widows sharing a room, she suggested that provision of individual rooms would create better relations between the widows. Devyani, a caretaker at AIWC Taraash Mandir, suggested that wheelchairs and English style water closets be provided for the convenience of the extremely aged residents.
  • As a short-term measure, the practice of disbursement of a monthly allowance shows great promise with respect to replication in other regions. However, in the long-term, such a step would neither be sustainable or feasible. It should be viewed merely as an intermediate step towards securing the independence and financial security of the next generation of widows.
  • While the model for medical aid currently being followed can be replicated easily, it would be wise to encourage greater coordination between NGOs and government hospitals wherein the former could facilitate treatment as and when possible. This would in turn reduce the economic burden on the project, resulting in greater sustainability. The existing facilities for medical treatment, though currently unsatisfactory, can be utilized if an appeal can be made to higher officials to look into the complaints concerning inefficient or inept government hospitals.
  • Attention must be given to ensure the welfare and safety of not only the women who are residing in ashrays but also those who are homeless and without shelter.
  • There is need for greater involvement of corporate bodies such as pharmaceutical companies through their CSR obligations in order to enhance the quality of medical aid being provided to aged women.


The project’s design is observed to be flexible, responding to the immediate needs of the elderly women. For example, the initial pension amount of Rs. 1000 was doubled; the outings and celebration of festivals were included within the ambit of the organisation after taking on the project. However, overall sustainability of the project can only be achieved once the strategies are mainstreamed into the care taking of the widows including long-term benefits to their mental and physical well-being.
Due to outdated beliefs and superstitions which view widows as a social evil and harbingers of misfortune, a large majority of widows remain vulnerable to societal and domestic harassment. By including widows and aged women in celebrations, the organisation aims to send a strong message to the sections of society that still believe in exclusion of widows from such events, an important step for mainstreaming widows and their rights in Indian milieu.
Viewing health from a holistic perspective that includes emotional and mental well-being, the social perception of widows and aged women as liabilities may be seen as a continuing challenge, one that may be easier to address once the immediate needs of the beneficiaries are met. Hiring of counsellors and implementation of mental health programs should be integrated into such projects once the initial impact on the beneficiaries has been measured.
Overall, the project shows ease of replicability, only requiring adequate funding for providing allowance and a stipend for the staff teaching languages or vocational courses, provided that mechanisms for obtaining medical aid from the government are strengthened and improved in coordination with local government bodies.
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