India could take a cue from Britain’s Ministry for Lonely People and draw up a policy to assist the lonely, homeless, and the mentally ill
In my first job at a British news daily yonks ago I subbed or edited a tiny two-paragraph story which attracted the attention of the editor who came to me, evidently liking the headline which said 'Lone old man/ dies unknown'. But he thought that the single column headline won't fit. I insisted that it would as it had two small or thin letters like 'l'. He let it go to the hot metal compositors and 'eureka' it fit! But the really significant part of the editor's attention was that he ordered one of the lead writers to write an editorial on the issue bringing out the plight of the city's loners and the society's responsibility towards them.
As chance would have it, the Beatles song 'All the lonely people' burst upon the music scene and touched the people's heartstrings anywhere and everywhere, and continues to do so till this day, as it is sure to do so tomorrow, and heaven knows until when. Some lines from that song were penned and set to eternal music by Paul McCartney:
Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people
Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Eleanor Rigby died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
There will always be some loners among all of us requiring the attention of fellow citizens, more so in countries like ours where a roof on one's head and two meals a day are not guaranteed as a right of citizenship. Even the much-ridiculed (by the rich) cradle-to-grave welfare state cannot look after or save the loners but the responsibility or effort to do whatever is possible belongs to all of us everywhere. I am sure the 'lonely old man' referred to at the start of this write-up or Eleanor Rigby of the Beatles song did not die for the want of the state's welfare provisions like food or shelter. But that is not consolation enough without the fellow citizens' empathy, sympathy, care, and concern. The two must go hand in hand.
Britain's recent decision this year to set up a ministry for lonely people, perhaps a first in the world, is an admirable step, worth the emulation of caring societies anywhere and everywhere. Prime Minister Theresa May called loneliness "the sad reality of modern life" for too many people.
"I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with," May said before appointing Tracey Crouch as minister for the job, in addition to her portfolio as minister for sport.
Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less, and a majority of people over 75 live alone while about 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, according to the UK government figures. Loners are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression.
Does India need such a ministry for lonely people? Most certainly we do. Just cast a look at the number of homeless people flocking to night shelters all the year round all over the country. The national capital alone has some 260 night shelters provided by the Delhi state government catering for about 9,200 people. The occupancy rate, of course, varies from day to day and night to night. The accommodation is rather basic. Only about 80 of the shelters are housed in RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) pucca buildings, the rest of them are situated in rather temporary portable cabin tin sheds and tents. There are only four shelters exclusively for women in this big city with a capacity for about 400 persons. Another five shelters cater for about 470 minor children.
Most of the shelters provide just a kind of roof over your head with not even a cup of tea to welcome on arrival. Some do offer a hot cup in the morning on your way out. The minimal facilities, accompanied by minimal care or concern, naturally do not attract all but the very neediest.
No wonder not everyone takes up the offer of the DUSIB shelter board's rescue teams. Quite often the number of people refusing to avail shelter facilities outnumbers those accepting the rescue offer. As many as 178 refused to be shifted to shelters against 168 agreeing to move to shelters on one night, according to the DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) report for March 10, this year.
The much-needed shelters are run by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) with official grants, some by private charities without charging any fees to the shelter board. The board's budget, though meagre, nevertheless is a positive contribution to the city's welfare for the homeless lonely people. A service that needs to be encouraged and expanded on a nationwide scale.
Loneliness comes in myriad forms. You could be young and connected to the internet or lost in a crowd in the big city. The loss of the older, retired people is too well known. The loss of company at work and the detailed attention to the job, however mundane, creates an emptiness that can sap the very desire to live.
But perhaps the worst affected are the mentally challenged who aren't even fully aware that they are lonely. The Delhi government's social welfare department has been circulating a photo list of mentally challenged persons separated from their families in various newspapers for the last few days. Sad to note that nearly 30 out of the 42 lost inmates of the ironically named Asha Deep Home are in their twenties facing a long walk into the unknown for the rest of their lives, if not rescued in time. And their plight could just be the tip of the iceberg in our society!
(The views expressed are strictly personal)