Ever since the outbreak of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, several thousand children have been orphaned as a result of the ongoing conflict in the region. The state has done little for these children, who have, by and large, been left to their cruel fate. The plight of orphaned girls is, obviously, even more precarious than that of boys.
Nari Niketan ('The Women's Home'), in Doda town, is the only state-funded orphanage in the whole of Jammu's conflict-torn Doda district, which, in terms of area, is larger than the whole of the Kashmir Valley or of the remaining districts of the Jammu province combined. Established in 1983, it was meant, as its name suggests, for destitute women but it now houses 25 orphan girls. These girls have all lost their fathers, although some of their mothers are still alive. The girls come from miserably poor families from far-flung villages in the mountainous and impoverished Doda district. The youngest of the girls studies in the third standard, and around half a dozen of them are doing their matriculation. The girls are all enrolled in government schools in Doda, and their living and other expenses are taken care of by the Nari Niketan.
Located in a narrow, slushy lane at one end of the town, the Nari Niketan has a sullen, depressing look. There is no garden or playground, and the rooms inside are bare, damp and dimly lit. The girls live in a large hall, and each of them is provided with a bed and a steel trunk. This is where they sleep, dine, play and study. The orphanage does not have a library and the only provision for recreation that it possesses are a carom board and some badminton rackets. The television has not been working for a year, and complaints made to the concerned authorities have made no difference at all.
The girls giggle and crowd around us when we enter. They proudly display samples of intricate embroidery and clothes they have stitched, which they have learnt to do from the amiable Zahida Begum, the crafts teacher who is like a foster mother to them. They excitedly tell us about their studies, but the heavy sadness that they carry deep inside is painfully evident. They complain of fever and rashes and the lack of amenities. They tell us that local people, even women living in the neighbourhood, rarely, if ever, come to meet, teach, play or just interact with them. 'Once or twice a year some people send us food on festivals', a chirpy girl tells us. That, it appears, is possibly the only interest that the denizens of Doda take in these hapless children.
'Why should we expect the government to do everything? Why cannot local people also help out?', asks a staff member when we discuss the problems that the Nari Niketan faces. The local press, she tells me, has not written anything about the institution and the problems of the girls who reside therein. 'The only time they do write about us is if and when a chance VIP pays us a visit. That too they write about the visit, not about the problems of the institution', she laments.
The girls at the Nari Niketan come from different communities. They are Kashmiri Muslims, Hindus, Dalits and Gujjars but this seems to matter not at all, for they all seem friendly enough with each other. 'We all celebrate Eid and Diwali together', says one girl, 'and religious differences are not a problem'.
The girls have their dreams and ambitions for the future, which they excitedly share with us. Some want to become teachers, others doctors, journalists and social workers. They tell us of two girls from the institution who are now in the Jammu and Kashmir Police and a dozen-odd girls who are now Anangawadi workers. 'Maybe we too can get good jobs like that', says a bright girl with an endearing smile, and her friends nod in agreement.
'There are several hundred girls in Doda district who have lost their fathers in the last fifteen years of conflict in Doda, and to add to that is the number whose fathers have died from other causes. So, clearly, our present in-take of just 25 girls for the whole of the district is pathetically low', says R, who works with the District Social Welfare Department (DSWD), in Doda. 'We've been sending representations every year to the government that the in-take of the Nari Niketan be increased to at least 50 and that at least one such institution be established in every of the seven tehsil headquarters in Doda district, including the newly-created Kishtwar and Ramban districts, but our pleas have gone unanswered'. This owes to bureaucratic indifference, and the apathy and misplaced priorities of the government, R explains.
'The government says that it does not have the funds for this. But the state is spending hundreds of crores every year on the army and police, so isn't it its duty to allocate at least a couple of lakhs every year for institutions for these children?', he asks in anguish.
The Nari Niketan, R tells me, receives more than a hundred applications each year, but every year only 4-5 girls are given admission. That means, he explains, only a little more than a hundred girls have benefited from the institution since it was established over two decades ago. Less than half a dozen girls in the Nari Niketan, R tells me, are victims of the ongoing armed conflict in Doda, even though the total number of such girls is staggering.
The New Delhi-based National Foundation for Communal Harmony (NFCH), he says, provides each of these children a sum of Rs. 750 per month. Some 470-odd children in Doda in all receive this sum, which is, as an official report of the District Social Welfare Officer of Doda explains, the only government scheme for orphaned children in the district. 'There are several hundred more children in Doda whose fathers have been killed in the violence, but I have no idea what the state is doing for them', R says.
The difficulty in accessing these limited facilities is, R explains, compounded by the fact that women whose husbands have been killed by militants or in cross-firing between militants and the Army who want to avail of such forms of state provision have to complete numerous complicated bureaucratic formalities, which few of them are in a position to do. They have to procure a copy of the First Information Report from the police station, an income certificate from the tehsil or revenue authorities, a school certificate countersigned by the Zila Educational Officer and so on, and then, R says, the NFCH can turn down the requests on the basis of minor technical faults such as unclear photocopies or unfilled columns in application forms.
The way its rules have been framed makes the Nari Niketan less effective than it could be. Once girls finish their matriculation they have to leave, thus making it almost impossible for them to carry on with their education. Girls who fail their examinations at any level cannot stay on.
A girl whom I met when I visited the Nari Niketan had failed to clear some of her papers in her matriculation examination. From an extremely poor family, both her parents were shot dead by militants.
'I want to carry on with my studies, to do something useful in life', she says' and the only way for me to do so is to enroll in a government school in Doda town and stay on in the Nari Niketan'. 'But' she says, 'the rules say I cannot stay here any longer, so what can I do?'. 'I've thought of approaching the District Collector to ask him, but he's a big man, so maybe I be I won't be allowed to meet him', she whispers in anguish.
The staff at the Nari Niketan seem dedicated enough and concerned about the children under their care. The major problem is bureaucratic inertia, lack of imagination and neglect. Why, I asked a man I befriended at the DSWD office, is it that the Nari Niketan does not have any even something as basic
as books for the children.
'Lack of funds', he answered. 'But', I responded, 'surely a cupboard with a couple of dozen children's books would hardly cost more than a thousand rupees'. 'We are constructing a second floor this year, which will have space for a dining hall, a room for relatives visiting the girl and for a library', he replied.
But, why, I pressed on, is it that for the last twenty-three years that the Nari Niketan has been in existence the authorities had not thought of installing a little cupboard with books, newspapers and games for the children. To which the well-meaning man simply shrugged his shoulders and said, 'What can I tell you, brother? You know how government departments function'.
The man went on to tell me about how all of the seven posts for social workers for the seven tehsils of the erstwhile Doda district have been lying vacant for several years, an indication, he says, of 'governmental apathy'. The DSWD, he said, provides grants-in-aid to just one NGO in the entire district, a school run by a Buddhist in Paddar in Kishtwar. The reasons: there are hardly any sincere NGOs here, most of the existing ones being money-making rackets; lack of awareness of government schemes; and the fact that most organizations working in the field of education and health in the district are run on a commercial basis. There are several people in Doda district, he tells me, who have done their graduation or post-graduation in social work, but almost none of them has set up a social work organization. 'Most of them have done their degrees simply to get a government job', he rues.
'Yes, the governmental authorities are to blame for doing almost nothing for orphans here', he says, 'but', he quickly adds, 'civil society organizations, too, are doing little. Such children seem not to matter at all to the powers-that-be'.