I recently accepted an invitation from Snehalaya’s physiotherapist to visit the state orphanage called the Mercy Home. I had heard and read many things about this place where our children came from, and was pleased to finally have the chance to see things for myself. As Vikram and I approached the building, nothing was as I expected it to be: I had formed the impression that the orphanage was in Gwalior itself, surrounded by bustling streets full of markets, shops and the throbbing mass of Indian society. However, much to my surprise, Mercy Home is out in the countryside, seemingly hidden away from view; almost as if India was hiding its shame. We entered through large, imposing metal gates and were greeted by a rush of residents seemingly desperate for contact with the outside world. The atmosphere immediately felt dark and suphocating; I realised, as far as our children were concerned, just how much of an improvement Snehalaya was in comparison with this, their former home.
With Vikram attending to his routine round to check on the residents, I peeled away and went to explore the vast building that had previously served as a paper mill during the British Raj. As I wandered through the corridors and out into the main courtyard, I immediately recognized my surroundings from photos held in the volunteers file at Snehalaya. I had seen pictures of children laid in this very courtyard, being washed and fed by volunteers. I recognized the gate where one boy was filmed chewing at the wallpaper and being beaten with a stick by a member of staff. The atmosphere felt very heavy and melancholic, and I thought how tough it must have been for volunteers who spent six months visiting here on a daily basis. I have been told disturbing stories of blood coating the floors, giant rats running over children and babies lying in their own excrement for days on end. Moreover, at mealtimes, food was laid out in the courtyard, and only those who could physically make it outside would be able to eat. Those bedridden and unable to move, unless fed by fellow residents, would be left to starve as there was no staff to feed them. One female volunteer related to me that, after a days work at the mercy home, exhausted beyond belief, they would head back home for a few stiff gin and tonics; I can certainly understand their need! From the courtyard, I was escorted by one of the male residents into the dormitories that felt like huge hospital wards from a bygone age. It may sound ridiculous, but I half imagined seeing Florence Nightingale carrying her lamp and attending to victims of some dreadful war. All the beds were rusting and falling apart, the sheets were dirty and mouldy, and everything felt very cold and uncomfortable. I was shocked as one man jumped up from underneath his covers; I had not seen him due to the heavy darkness that permeates the place. From the window of the dormitory a fort loomed up on a hill and added to the impression of being in a place more befitting medieval times. A windowless kitchen with earthen floors, hearth and smoky atmosphere only added to this feeling.
The residents of the Mercy Home are now, mercifully, only adults, since the children were rescued from their torment and brought to live at Snehalaya. There are currently only 15 residents, whereas before there were over 70, and thus they naturally seem much better cared for. There is a large garden at the front of the building, with a huge oak tree, and it could look so much better if properly cared for. If there was some fresh paint on the walls, new beds and new equipment, then my impressions of the mercy home would probably be very different. The reality is this however; the government only pays the wages of the staff, and does not provide funds for other necessities. This means that food and equipment (if any) has to be purchased through donation. This strikes me as ridiculous, as this is the state orphanage, and the Government of India should have an obligation to provide for all the needs of its people. However, this is India and not the west; such a situation is unthinkable in the UK, but out here they are fortunate that the government actually pays their salaries at all. How can there be any improvement in conditions if no money is made available?
The lack of resources at the Mercy Home is only one example of a deep rooted problem in Indian society. The villages in the immediate vicinity are desperately poor, where people live out their lives in abject poverty. Children play naked in the dirt, the streets are awash with garbage and human refuse, and mothers cook meager food on fires made from cow dung. Disease is rife with infant mortality high due to lack of sanitation and inadequate education. These shocking realities are no surprise when you consider that there is no welfare state in India. The economy is soaring, with more billionaires than any other country in the world; however, in this huge nation the old adage of the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, could not be more appropriate. India is in the midst of an economic boom with huge capital being generated from its status as world leaders in IT and services, as well as access to vast natural resources and an infinite pool of manpower. So the question is where does all this money go? The answer, not hard to imagine, is that a large proportion goes into the pockets of the new, emerging middle classes and super rich, and much of what is set aside for the rest is siphoned off by corrupt bureaucrats. Indian bureaucracy is like a huge network of broken and leaking pipes where, by the time the money reaches its required destination, there is very little left. I have seen some signs that money is getting through to those who need it: for example, the government has built some schools where the children are fed for free, and also ensures that there is at least one trained midwife living in each village. However, these examples are few and far between, and so much more can and needs to be done to improve the lives of India’s rural poor. It is little wonder that there are such funding problems at the Mercy Home when the state doesn’t provide for the needs of its own people! It was only when volunteers appealed to Gwalior council on numerous occasions that any improvements were made to the Mercy Home. I have been told that conditions, as they are now, are ten times better then what they used to be; I cannot fathom how awful it must have been when all our children were living there. It is disgraceful and shameful, and it is terrifying to think that all the towns and cities of India will have a Mercy Home, or equivalent, with children living in these deplorable conditions.
To end on a positive note perhaps it is better to see it as a blessing that there is a Mercy Home in Gwalior in the first place. Having seen what I have seen, I would not be surprised to find that, in some parts of India, there is no place at all for mentally challenged people. Gwalior Mercy Home now has an excellent doctor, who seems genuinely caring, and now has a much improved staff to resident’s ratio. I was even informed that, the day after my visit, they were all going to the zoo for a day out to mark a national holiday. Thank goodness there is some light and happiness, for these poor people, in their otherwise dark and troubled existence.