Concerted efforts imp to bring them into mainstream

B L Patil

As we descended Uchangidurga in Davanagere district on October 29, a deep voice from down the hill stopped T V Renukamma midway. “When will I get my pension? I have got only one month’s money in the last six months,” rued a Devadasi who works as a servant at the Uchangidurga temple. She also wanted to know if she can benefit from the housing scheme as her shelter is in a dilapidated condition. Pension, housing, and fund & training for income generation activities are the three major government schemes for Devadasis. However, they feel that it is a daunting task for them to avail the benefits most of the time. And Renukamma works as a bridge between the administration and the Devadasis in Davanagere, and tries to fast-track the process.

After several campaigns and compelling pleas by Devadasis, their monthly pension was increased to Rs 1,500 in 2017, but the women allege that the fund transfer is not regular. As many as 29,767 Devadasis get pension, which is deposited quarterly. Since only those who are above 45 years get the pension, many fabricate their age so that they can avail the benefit ahead of time, a clear indicator of their misery.

So far, nearly 20,000 Devadasis have got shelter under the housing scheme. However, two clauses make this scheme elusive for these women — only those who own a site are eligible for housing, but most of the Devadasis are site less. Secondly, the government sanctions funds in a phased manner, only after the corresponding construction work is over, and the families who struggle to make ends meet find it difficult to adjust money. “As per the Budget announcement of house for site-less people, district administrations are in the process of identifying land for the formation of sites. We have already identified land in Raichur and Ballari,” C H Vasundhara Devi, managing director, Karnataka State Women’s Development Corporation told DH.

Though some Devadasis were granted land under a rehabilitation programme decades ago, it is either uncultivable or inaccessible. In Koppal, irrigation was provided to such lands under the Ganga-Kalyan scheme last year. “That is not enough; we should ensure that there is electricity connection. Behind each such step taken lie years of hard work and relentless campaigning. Still, the welfare schemes lack a holistic approach,” Bhagyalakshmi of Sakhi told DH.

Victims without a voice

She recalls an incident of rescuing a Devadasi and her five children from a mining site in Hospet. “If we were late by a day, all the three girl children would have been pushed into this system. The mother was anaemic and we had to provide immediate medical assistance.” After continuous follow-up, the mother has transformed into a crusader against this system and the children are pursuing higher education at reputed institutions. “If we support one child, the family or society puts pressure on the younger sister to become a Devadasi. So, priority is to bring all of them out of the village and empower them,” Bhagya says.

One has to understand the circumstances and support the mother to earn a livelihood before bringing the children into the mainstream. While residential schooling is imperative, they need to be given moral support and courage to face adverse situations. Otherwise, there is a high risk of them succumbing to societal pressure. Bhagya recalls an instance where a postgraduate girl who worked with them for five years had to concede to the family’s wish. “The very next day after she was dedicated to god, she committed suicide.” Generations of suppression has made these socio-economically backward communities highly vulnerable.

“Holistic education for the children of Devadasis, skill development and self-employment for Devadasis can bring them out of misery,” says B L Patil, one of the pioneers in the fight against this evil.

B L Patil founded an organisation,Vimochana, for this cause and in 1990, started a residential school for the children of Devadasis in Athani of Belagavi district, the first such effort in the country. Hundreds of children have studies in this school and a few of them have achieved success in life.

Devadasi membership organisations like State Devadasi Mahila Vimochana Sanghatane; Mahila Abhivrudhi Mattu Samrakshana Samsthe, Belagavi, the organisation’s chief executive officer, Sitavva Jodatti, a Devadasi herself, is a Padma Shri awardee; Vimukta Devadasi Mahila Vedike - the forum’s leader Padiyamma is a Devadasi, while Chandulinga, who belongs to the community, is spearheading a movement for the welfare of Devadasi families; and several voluntary organisations are putting in sincere efforts to bring them into the mainstream. However, the impact seems to be a drop in the ocean. “We work in pockets and we can achieve something significant only with concerted efforts,” says Bhagya.

Still, these efforts have borne fruit. Hundreds of Devadasis campaign for their rights and have resolved to not let their children face the same predicament. They are vocal about their plight and are not bothered about how the society treats or thinks about them. These women have gained the strength to face the challenges with grit, and have grown as leaders. “This was possible because we are economically empowered. My son is an advocate and he is not ashamed to say that his mother is a Devadasi. The society follows us when we stand firm,” says Kenchamma of Harapanahalli.

“It took several years and continuous campaigns for us to convince the government about the need for another survey in 2007,” says B Malamma, president of the State Devadasi Mahila Vimochana Sanghatane.

Get the numbers right

As predicted, the survey added 23,787 Devadasis, or ‘former’ Devadasis as the government puts it (all these women have taken oath that they will stop practicing it), to the 22,873 Devadasis from the previous survey in 1993. “Even that survey was not complete. Each village has a handful of Devadasis who were left out of the survey. Also, the team has either skipped or overlooked some villages. There are at least 40,000 more Devadasis in the state. We are demanding a fresh survey and this time, the team should gather complete information about Devadasi families and there should also be a separate survey of Devadasi children,” says Malamma. Mokshapathi, Devadasi Rehabilitation project officer in Davanagere, agrees that many women were left out in the previous survey.

“Only a sustainable approach that encompasses all aspects and people working in the field can help abolish this organised crime. Schemes should be planned in such a way that they give them their fundamental rights, social security and a life of dignity. Government, judiciary, law enforcement and project implementation agencies, civil society organisations and religious heads should come together to rehabilitate and reintegrate Devadasis into the society,” says B L Patil. 

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Concerted efforts imp to bring them into mainstream

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