Twenty years after ugly Erwadi tragedy, folks with disabilities proceed to be handled with indignity
Twenty years ago on August 6th, at dawn in Erwadi, Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram, a fire broke out in a thatched shelter, devouring 43 chained people with psychosocial disabilities. Their heartbreaking cries for help were promptly disregarded as a habitual harassment of the “mentally ill”. Twenty-five chained people with psychosocial disabilities were burned to death, and three more later died from their wounds.
According to People’s Watch Tamil Nadu, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was informed in September 2000 of the inhumane conditions at Badhusa Mental Health Home, a private mental health facility run by a Mohaideen Basha. Such private institutions survive because of their proximity to faith-based healing centers – in this case Erwadi Dargah. Because mental illness is highly stigmatized, caregivers flock to these faith-based facilities in hopes of finding a cure. Private actors take advantage of their vulnerability and force such people with psychosocial problems to group themselves together and to be chained in these shelters. Had the government and the NHRC acted in good time, the Erwadi tragedy could have been prevented.
Despite the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007, the passage of the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016 and the Law on Mental Health Care (MHCA) in 2017, states still have human rights not observed by people with disabilities in general and people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in particular. On the 70th anniversary of independence in 2016, I was forced to tweet about the plight of mentally ill people who were stripped of their dignity and kept naked in the state-run Behrampore psychiatric clinic in West Bengal. No one bothered to address the plight of the chained mentally ill at another religious institution in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, where police had been hired to search for missing buffalo and dogs belonging to political leaders. Chaining in any form or form is prohibited under Section 95 of the MHCA. But a lawyer had to take the case to the Supreme Court to get the detainees released in Badaun. In March of that year, when the World Mental Health Association decided on the theme of the 2021 World Mental Health Day campaign, the media highlighted the shocking story of a 45-year-old man in Pokhran, Jaisalmer, who had been chained for 18 years Open-air cattle shed. It is ironic that the theme for 2021 is Mental Health in an Unequal World.
These stories show the devaluation of the lives of the disabled. Countries like Switzerland and Spain moved out disabled people living in institutions during the Covid pandemic. The United States and Chile have developed specific guidelines for the homeless with disabilities. The UK government released prisoners with disabilities who had less than two months to serve their sentences. While such practices were being carried out around the world to protect vulnerable populations, activists and advocates for the rights of disabled people pleaded the Indian government to provide reasonable accommodation to people with disabilities in prison – GN Saibaba, the late Father Stan Swamy, Shiv Kumar. An elderly tribal rights activist, a central university professor and a youth with a disability only asked for a drinker, medication and glasses – quite reasonable demands according to the law of the country. As you know, Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said: “Where do universal human rights finally begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. If these rights have no meaning there, they have no meaning anywhere. “
Last week – 20 years after the Erwadi tragedy – the Minister of State for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare informed the Rajya Sabha that only eight states / UTs – Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Odisha, Kerala, and West Bengal – have established rules for the implementation of MHCA.
The Erwadi Memorial Day is a day of remembrance and reflection. A day to reflect on the lessons of the Erwadi disaster. If we don’t implement the law verbally and in writing, the Global Mental Health Movement will only remain a buzzword and the CRPD-dependent MHCA will only remain law on paper. Something seriously wrong with our system is when it needs the intervention of the Supreme Court to bring dignity to people with psychosocial disabilities, or when the government in India’s capital city is unable to do so despite repeated appeals by a centenarian woman with age-related disabilities comply with their request for home vaccination. Protecting the human rights of everyone would be the best tribute to the chained people in Erwadi who were burned. No life is worthless and we, as health professionals, educators and policy makers, must ensure that the human rights approach to disability is integrated into mental health systems, education, justice and bureaucracy, and that we are separated from pathologization and Remove segregation and take a charitable approach.
The author teaches at the University College of Medical Sciences in Delhi and is a disability rights activist. Views are personal