August 8: In a gruesome tragedy, 26 mentally challenged persons were burnt to death in Yerwadi, Tamil Nadu. When the fire broke out, the patients, who were chained to posts, in a makeshift asylum, were unable to escape. Eleven of the patients were women.
Taking serious note of the fire, the Supreme Court issued notices to the central and the Tamil Nadu governments seeking a report on the Yerwadi fire. The Court said the tragedy “raised questions concerning human rights of inmates of a mental asylum”.
The National Human Rights Commission also issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government seeking a detailed report on the tragedy.
Following the tragedy, the district administration of Ramanathapuram recommended the closure of all private asylums around the Yerwadi dargah. The administration also decided to take action against the relatives of the inmates for admitting them to the asylum.
In this connection, the police have already arrested the asylum owner, Muhaideen Badshah, his wife and two of their relatives. Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha has also announced a compensation worth Rs. 50,000 for each of the victims’ families.
Why did the tragedy occur?
The tragedy has brought to light the sorry state of the Yerwadi mental asylum and many such institutions across India. This particular asylum for example, was just a thatched-roof house, located in a narrow cramped lane. It had neither electricity nor basic sanitation facilities. Besides, chaining patients grossly violates the prevailing law on mental health.
The Yerwadi asylum, which ran without any medical faculty, cashed in on the superstitions of ordinary people. Situated close to a dargah, the asylum was seen as a place where divine grace could cure any mental illness. And even as families left their relatives in the hands of untrained authorities, the local health department turned a blind eye to the pathetic conditions prevailing in the asylum.
A report in The Indian Express points out:
- In most such asylums, a majority of the inmates are chained all the time. These chains are said to possess divine powers.
- The fate of an inmate depends upon the will of the asylum owner. Only when he pronounces a patient “cured”, is the latter free to leave. Most of the time, however, even the “cured” have no place to go as relatives shut their doors on them.
- In Yerwadi alone, there are nearly 600 patients in 17 private homes. About 90 per cent of them live in thatched sheds without any toilets.
- Most of the patients are poorly fed and suffer from malnourishment.
- On an average, the patients spend 16 years in the asylums and are charged anything between Rs 500 to Rs 1,500, depending on their illness and the ‘facilities’ they are offered.
The Mental Health Act of 1987 says, “Mental health patients can’t be chained under any conditions”. But as the Yerwadi tragedy would suggest, such laws are being openly flouted by the asylum owners. And the people’s belief that mental illness is a curse only helps their business.
It is high time that governmental agencies took serious note of the plight of the mentally ill in asylums. Along with providing the right kind of health facilities, it is also important to make people more aware of the fact that mental illnesses require medical treatment just like physical illnesses do.