Wednesday, June 04, 2003

the juggler of ramanathapuram

The District Collector of Ramanathapuram, S.Vijayakumar, cleaned up an infamous asylum, started self-employment schemes for the mentally ill and worked –on a PhD.

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in Man's World in June 2003).

In August 2001 S. Vijayakumar was less than two months into his new job as District Collector of Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, when a deadly fire in an unauthorised mental asylum in Erwadi killed 28 mentally challenged people who had been chained to their beds. Within two days Vijayakumar sent detailed reports to the Tamil Nadu government, urging a complete ban on all such asylums in the state. The ban was instituted on August 10, four days after the deadly fire and by the 13th, Vijayakumar shut the 15 illegal asylums in Erwadi. He then personally oversaw the handover of 406 patients to their families and the transfer of 165 abandoned patients to trained hands in the Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk and the Government Hospital in Ramanathapuram.

After a job well done, Vijayakumar could have gone back to reacquainting himself with the perks and niceties of being a district collector of a small town. He didn’t. Rehabilitating the Erwadi victims was just the first step taken by the shocked 33-year-old IAS officer, for whom the battle had only just begun. “In India, the uneducated -- and even the educated sometimes -- tend to think that the mentally ill are a matter of shame. What shocked me most was that despite the advances in the field of psychiatry and rehabilitation, something like Erwadi happened,” says Vijayakumar.

Vijayakumar, a deeply religious man, least expected to confront such atrocities in a place like his new district. Ramanathapuram is surrounded by god and populated with places associated with Rama and Sita, from the mythological story of the Ramayana. Rameswaram, a small island in the Gulf of Mannar, is home to the Ramanathaswamy temple. This is the place where Rama, on his return from Sri Lanka, is said to have offered thanks to Shiva and purified himself of the sin of killing the demon king Ravana. The site of the Satchi Hanuman Temple is where Hanuman is said to have told Rama that Sita was alive in Lanka.

Not far from Rameshwaram, In Erwadi in Ramanathapuram, lies another holy site: the tomb of Sultan Ibrahim Syed Aulia, also called Sultan Syed Ibrahim Shaheed Valiyullah. He was a Moroccan who was traveling in India propagating Islam when he died in 1198. According to legend, he made an appearance in a dream of one of his descendants asking him to build a tomb for him at a particular spot. The dargah was built and according to another story, the king of Ramanathapuram, Vijaya Regunatha Sethupathy, prayed here for a son and heir to his throne. He is said to have drunk the “holy” water of the dargah for over a month and his wife eventually bore a son. The king then gave the dargah 2,400 hectares of land. Since then, it has been believed that the holy water and oil from a lamp in the dargah can cure all ailments.

Vijayakumar says people of all faiths have been coming to the dargah for the last 200 years in search for various cures, but mostly for mental illnesses. Several spurious mental institutions had sprung up around the dargah starting around 15 years ago. It took the fire in Erwadi for the Tamil Nadu government to implement sections of the long-ignored Mental Health Act of 1987, Section 6(1) of which prohibits the running of a home for the mentally ill without a licence. Section 11(1b) says the licensing authority can revoke a licence if the running of the "home is being carried on in a manner detrimental to the moral, mental or physical well-being of the inpatients." Having implemented the act, the state government set up a District Mental Health Programme in Ramanathapuram to create awareness about mental health.

Vijayakumar was in charge of the programme, but he took it 20 steps ahead, right from the start. "We realised that unless the community is involved, the stigma attached to mental illness won’t go away,'' he says. Vijayakumar roped in the Madurai-based M.S.Chellamuthu Trust and named its founder Dr. C. Ramasubramaniam the coordinator of the programme. "Treating the mentally ill does not stop with medicines. It involves a multi-dimensional approach including rehabilitation and integration into the family and society," says the doctor. So, together they conducted a complete household survey of the district and created a database of the mentally and physically handicapped persons. Then they categorized them based on the level of their needs and conducted 80 camps throughout the district. The aim, as Vijayakumar told the staff of all the departments of the district administration, was to work out a rehabilitation programme for all the people identified and provide them with at least one form of government assistance, if not more.

Department officials were present at all of the camps so the physically and mentally handicapped were immediately provided with identity cards and some form of relief aid. No long drawn out paperwork or signatures in triplicate were required. Doesn’t sound like the bureaucracy. “I feel that being a bureaucrat is an asset and not an obstacle because when the right ideas are put forth and followed up closely anything can be achieved ‘because’ I’m a bureaucrat. As the planning was done so meticulously with all
the officials and NGOs who were involved in the rehabilitation programme, there was no major obstacle in the implementation of the programme. The only thought in the minds of everyone involved in this effort was that the mentally challenged and physically
handicapped people should get their due benefits from the government without any omission,” says Vijayakumar.

The district set up mobile psychiatry units, gave free bus passes to the handicapped, got cleft palate patients treated, arranged for corrective surgeries for 125 physically handicapped people and got more than a thousand children admitted to school. The administration also set up eight vocational training centers in the district, provided each center with a continuous physiotherapy wing and trained 100 village health nurses. All this with no additional funds from the government. “The funds for the centres have been dovetailed from the available schemes in District Rural Development Agency and other departments and with the active support of NGOs and nationalised banks,” says Vijayakumar. The M.S. Chellamuthu Trust and the Pioneer College of Physiotherapy also gave him a great deal of help. When there was a need for even more funds for wheelchairs and surgeries, Vijayakumar decided to seek help from various hospitals by appealing to their conscience. After witnessing the strides being made by the district, the National Institute of Mental Health gave its mental health programme a whopping Rs. 30 lakhs. Even the state chief minister who is known to be stingy with praise commended his efforts at a conference of district collectors.

“Ramanathapuram is a different place now, compared with what it was two years ago,” says Dr. Ramasubramaniam, who recalls being amazed at the speed with which Vijayakumar’s office got things done. “He is quite a visionary, not your usual kind of IAS officer,” he says, as we enter one of the vocational training centres in the district. These centers are Dr. Ramasubramaniam’s pride and joy. To get the community involved the doctor set up monitoring committees for each centre, with the committee comprising panchayat leaders and family members. “This is how the mentally ill can get a feeling of self worth. Families of the mentally ill would resent them for being a burden and a lot of these people would become seriously depressed. But by actively producing things these patients now have smiles on their faces,” the doctor says. The chorus that greets him upon entering the center is proof enough. He discreetly informs me that some of the Erwadi survivors are at the center. It’s hard to tell who they are, as they’ve been well rehabilitated. “They were depressed for months after the tragedy and the smiles on their faces now are reward enough,” he says. The patients at these centers are trained to make housecleaning products, paper bags and ornamental knick-knacks from seashells. ``We make sure the products have a market. So that the proposition is commercially viable, and the patients keep the money from sales,'' says Dr. Ramasubramaniam.

Vijayakumar couldn’t have found a better ally than the good doctor. Ramasubramaniam’s Chellamuthu Trust was judged the best NGO working amongst persons with mental disabilities in Tamil Nadu in 1999-2000 and was named a “recognized research center” by the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology. Ramasubramaniam is committed and Vijayakumar is dogged. Having provided relief to close to almost 11,000 people, the District Collector is making sure that follow up programs are being regularly conducted even as the scope of the mental health programme broadens. “We can’t afford to become complacent, this is an ongoing project as long as mental illness exists in society,” he says, adding that even now patients coming to the Primary Health Centres for medicines, pay a visit to the dargah. ‘I am not about to interfere with anyone’s faith, I am just happy that the dargah visit is a ‘supplement’ to the medicines,” he grins.

And that’s not all Vijayakumar is focused on. He is also attempting to overhaul the education, sanitation and drinking water sectors in the district. He has already instituted major rainwater harvesting measures in the drought prone district and is close to completing his Ph.D. in Watershed Management at the Gandhigram Rural Institute in Dindigul. How does he find the time to do all this ? “I see myself as a juggler with three to four balls in the air. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing all these things so I find time to do them, that’s all,” he says.