The Lotika Sarkar case has highlighted the trauma that old people, especially women, undergo if they are alone. With the greying of India, it’s time for a foolproof policy that deals with the multiple problems of the elderly. She is best known as the mother of feminist jurisprudence in India. An eminent professor of law, Lotika Sarkar stood tall behind several path-breaking legislations for gender justice. Yet, at 87, she is a frail shadow of her self, vulnerable both physically and emotionally. Alone, widowed and childless, she has suddenly been rendered homeless and penniless. An old friend’s son has usurped her house, claiming that she gifted it to his wife. IPS official Nirmal Dhaundiyal is now in possession of the posh South Delhi house that the Sarkars built while Lotika Sarkar has sought refuge with friends and relatives.
The Sarkar case has shaken New Delhi’s elite circles. Lotika Sarkar’s husband, Chanchal Sarkar, was a leading journalist who headed the Press Institute of India for several years. Lotika Sarkar comes from an eminent bhadralok family of Bengal and inherited both progressive ideas and money. She was the adopted daughter of the Attorney General Sir D.N. Mitra. She was the first Indian woman to go to Cambridge and the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in law at that renowned university.
Her students include some of the country’s top lawyers and judges. The list of those who have rallied to her support and signed an open letter is studded with such names as Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Soli Sorabjee, Gopal Subramaniam and Kapila Vatsyayan. Jurists, advocates, academics, bureaucrats, journalists and human rights activists have signed the open letter demanding justice for her.
Yet, justice may elude the professor of criminal law in her last years. The police official claims that she gifted the house voluntarily, out of affection, and that it was a legal transfer. Lotika Sarkar is too fragile now to contest the claim in a court of law. At the age of 87, she does not have the time for the law to take its tortuous course. She has lost everything. When friends rescued her, from what they claim was virtual house arrest, she had to leave all her things behind, even her spectacles and her cheque book.
Her friends allege that her bank accounts are empty and the large amount of ancestral jewellery she possessed is missing. They wonder where the money that came from the sale of her parents’ bungalow in Kolkata has gone. Some speculate that she was over-drugged and slept all day, leaving her memory fuzzy. However, these are unconfirmed speculations.
The episode reminds one of the apocryphal tale of the Arab who let his camel put a foot into his tent. The Dhaundiyals’ son was first invited to stay with the Sarkars when he came to Delhi to find work. He stayed on and later, after Lotika lost her husband and suffered a fracture, his mother came to stay, apparently to nurse her. The Dhaundiyals dismissed the Bengali domestic worker who had served the Sarkars for over 20 years. They evicted her from the quarter behind the house. When the domestic went to court and got an order for repossession, policemen swarmed the bungalow. The incident alerted neighbours and the Sarkar case hit the headlines.
Friends and relatives flocked to the house and several told reporters that they had stopped visiting because the Dhaundiyals had made them feel unwelcome. Few people had met Sarkar in the past two years. She had become isolated from her circle of friends, colleagues, students and admirers.
Having shifted to a cousin’s home, Lotika Sarkar issued a statement appealing to Nirmal Dhaundiyal and his family to give her back her house. He filed a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi High Court, alleging that she was being held by her relatives against her will. On March 2, 2009 the Court dismissed the application after Sarkar stated that she was staying with them of her own free will.
The statement signed by Sarkar’s votaries appeals that the property and assets be transferred back to her and that she be allowed to “return to her home safe and secure as an owner of the house with full rights of residence and life”.
At a press conference on the issue, the Government was urged to take action against the IPS officer for violation of the rules of conduct obligatory for a civil servant. Activists are also calling for an enquiry into his assets and those of his family.
Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, founder of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, regretted that “the person concerned is a keeper of the law” and said the episode “is indicative of the lack of respect and acceptance of human dignity by the very people responsible for the law”.
Dr. Vina Mazumdar, former Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, and a close friend of “Lotikadi” (as she is affectionately known) says this is an issue that has to be fought, not just for her but for all senior citizens. At 82, Dr. Mazumdar knows the problems of ageing only too well. “Our numbers are going to increase,” she says. “And more senor citizens are going to be women, as women are biologically tougher and invariably outlive men. The Government must evolve a proper policy for the old. They need care and families are not always in a position to provide it. There should be more homes for older people. It is a social responsibility and the State has to take the lead. It can tax citizens for it.”
Dr. Mazumdar says Sarkar is the second member of the pioneering Committee on the Status of Women in India, 1975, to have been left homeless in old age. The academic Dr. Phulrenu Guha’s husband Prof. B.C. Guha had willed their home to Kolkata University for building a biochemistry lab. She was entitled to live on one floor. But the University sold the house and an ailing Guha was out on the street. Jyoti Basu heard of her plight and admitted her to a nursing home where she died.
NGOs working with the aged come across such cases regularly. According to an Older Persons Property Victimisation Survey carried out by HelpAge India in 2007, many elderly people living with their children in Delhi face intense pressure to either sell off their property or transfer ownership to their sons or daughters. Every second elderly person in the city faces harassment over property or admits to knowing another senior citizen who is being harassed. The survey found that posh South Delhi reported 41.6 per cent of cases followed by central Delhi with 20.8 per cent of cases. In 50 per cent of the cases, the harassment was being inflicted on parents by their children or children-in-law.
Children are not the only ones. Property brokers, dealers, lawyers and criminals prey on the old, browbeating or cheating them into parting with valuable properties. Widows are especially vulnerable as they are unfamiliar with financial and property matters and many are rendered destitute.
Dr. Mazumdar warns that increasing numbers of elderly women will face such problems in the years to come.
India’s elderly population has risen from nearly two crores in 1951 to 7.2 crores in 2001. About eight per cent of the population is over 60 and by 2025 that figure will cross 18 per cent. Life expectancy has risen from merely 29 years in 1947 to 63 years now.
There is a clear need for action on the policy and planning front. Random sops such as a lower tax slab or concessional train fares for seniors, although welcome, do not touch the heart of the matter.
The National Policy for Older Persons approved in 1999 falls short in several respects and even its limited provisions have not been adequately implemented. There are no signs of a pension fund for ensuring security for unorganised sector workers. There are too few old age homes and day-care centres and legislation for ensuring compulsory geriatric ca
re in public hospitals is still awaited.
The only law for seniors came as late as 2007 when Parliament passed the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act.
This law is focused on the issue of maintenance and puts the responsibility squarely on the family, with children, grandchildren and other relatives liable for paying a living allowance to the elderly. Abandonment of the old is punishable by imprisonment and fine. Maintenance tribunals are to be set up to provide speedy redressal. So far, some 15 States have set up tribunals.
A valuable clause of the Act is the provision for declaring void any property transfer by the elderly, if the relative to whom it is bequeathed does not maintain the person satisfactorily. Unfortunately, such a clause may not protect a person like Sarkar whose property has been transferred to someone who is not her relative.
Welcome as the maintenance law is, it does not address the multiple problems of the elderly in a comprehensive manner. Clearly a much stronger law to protect the property, assets and human rights of the elderly is the need of the hour.
Where I live
There are some 25 houses on the street where I live. Every second house has an elderly widow — and a story. This small south Delhi colony was built some 30 years ago by government servants, men with some power but limited purses. The men are all gone now but the women live on. As land prices have escalated, these houses are now valuable property and vicious family dramas are unfolding.
Mrs. C. ’shares’ a house with her son and his family. After her husband’s death her son claimed the property was his. She stoutly asserted her right and the matter went to court. She is allowed only a room in the house and cooks separately. She spends her days in her daughter’s home, only sleeping at night in her own house.
Mrs. A has been the unluckiest of all. Her two, no-good sons refused to let her give even a third of the property to her married daughter. They had secured power of attorney from their unsuspecting old mother and sold the three-storied house to a broker. She was left living in the small annexe to the house. A day came when her sons brought in goondas to evict her. Mrs. A. fled to her daughter’s home. She died of heartbreak within the year.
These are real stories, unembellished, as the writer has witnessed them.
SUJATA MADHOK , Apr 05, 2009, The Hindu,