One of the worst deluges in the history of Uttarakhand occurred in the month of June 2013, at the peak of the pilgrim season, in the valley surrounding the holy shrine of Lord Kedarnath. During the pilgrim season, the local hill-men work along the pilgrim route in small hotels, or are engaged in petty seasonal jobs to earn a living for the rest of the year. In that fateful month, thousands of native residents were lost to the disastrous floods. While governmental report pegs their number to be around 5000, field surveys estimate that over 10000 residents of the Himalayan state perished in the 2013 floods. But it is the times of great tragedy that makes heroes of common people. Today, we bring to you the story of one such hero – Mr Kalika Prasad Kala. He has been fighting to provide a better life to over 1000 children, most of them school-going girls, who were orphaned or rendered fatherless in these calamitous floods.
Nearly 1500 to 2000 children were orphaned or rendered parentless in the 2013 floods. “With limited economic opportunities available to their families, the orphaned children had to drop out of schools and find work in fields or do petty jobs.”, Mr Kala explains. And then with a heavy heart he continues, “The government response to the sudden misfortune and hardships that had befallen these children was rather indifferent”. And thus, began the long legal crusade of Mr Kalika Prasad Kala. He filed a PIL in the Nainital High Court with the prayer that these unfortunate orphaned children be given admission in the state-run Rajiv Gandhi Navodaya Vidhyalas. Mr Kala insisted that these children must be given quality education, maintenance, food, lodging, and medical care as wards of the state of Uttarakhand since it is the duty of the welfare state to take care of such disaster victim children. He also pleaded that for children below the age of schooling, the state must open crèches.
After a two year long legal battle, which Mr K P Kala fought all alone, with his limited financial means, and despite poor health, he finally secured a better future for these children. On 10 March 2017, Hon’ble Uttarakhand High Court by its judgment identified 132 such orphaned children and ordered that they must be admitted in the Navodaya Vidhyalayas and given free education up to class XII. “Without the High Court judgement, these young children would have been condemned to a life of hardship, a life without education, a life without a future, a life without hope, ” says Mr Kala with pain in his voice. “No one took note of them. These children were invisible victims, almost as if they did not exist or matter “, he adds.
There is another dimension to the tragedy in Uttarakhand. Loss of parents or primary breadwinner of the family is a great personal loss, but it impacts male and female children very differently. Mr Kala explains, “This loss is a gendered phenomenon, sociologically speaking. While an orphan boy does have some chances of escaping poverty and achieving social mobility, these opportunities are often unavailable to a girl orphan.” The social structure of our society and the greater preference for male children results in a higher rate of adoption for male orphans, formal or informal, by relatives. In sharp contrast, people shy away from adopting female orphans.
“The added responsibilities of their safety and prevalence of social evils such as dowry are serious impediments that render girl orphans less welcome to adoption”, Mr Kala further elaborates. He also points out, “Even if a girl child is taken in by the relatives, the financial condition of the adopting family may not be sound enough to bear the expenses of education of another child.” Girl orphans from underprivileged backgrounds form the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of society. “They are the forgotten daughters of our society”, Mr Kala says with deep anguish.
The PIL dragged on for two years. In the absence of financial support from the state, many child flood-victims, most of them, girls, dropped out of the education system. Realizing this, Mr K P Kala, co-founded the Parvati Devi Ganga Ram Bhat Trust (PDGRB Trust) along with other like-minded senior citizens. The four co-founders pooled in their savings and supported the school education of 18 orphaned/fatherless flood-victim girls in 2015. With more support from family members, next of kin, and well-meaning citizens, the trust was able to offer financial support for school education to 28 girls in 2016, 42 girls in 2017, and 63 girls in 2018.
Mr Kala calls it “Citizen’s Social Responsibility” and believes that it is the responsibility of every citizen to help the fellow man. “Why should we wait for the state for everything? Why should only Corporates have a social responsibility?”, he asks sharply. Mr Kala’s belief in Citizen’s Social Responsibility has not only helped 150 girl orphans continue their school education but also encouraged them to do exceedingly well in Board exams opening up opportunities for higher education.
Mr Kala believes that a lot more remains to be done still. “The scope of the PDGRB Trust is limited to the Kedarnath region. It is now time for me to work for the orphaned children in the whole of Uttarakhand”, he says with conviction. He has recently founded the “Manas Foundation for Girl Orphans” in Dehradun, with the objective of ”providing educational aid in the form of yearly scholarships to meritorious girl orphans from marginalised backgrounds in remote rural areas of Uttarakhand.
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Author : Srikant Manas Kala, an alumnus of Rashtriya Indian Military College and IIT Hyderabad, is a researcher and entrepreneur. He is passionate about interdisciplinary research and professionally counsels young researchers on technical projects. Committed to several social endeavours, he is a trustee and co-founder of charitable organizations working for girl-child education.