In the cover photo: Sunantha, Rajeshwari, Poongodi, Kauvery and Uma Mageshwari, five of the 12 women who got ration cards with their chosen families listed
For many of us, families are a source of support and a place of love. However, there are also those for whom these units can be places of neglect and abuse. And for yet others, families are a fantasy – at least those related by blood. Unfortunately, the Indian bureaucracy does not take these nuances into account, and is biased towards having biological families when it comes to identity documentation. This creates a hurdle for those who are estranged from, or do not have biological families – the system does not usually recognise chosen families formally. However, an organisation based in Tamil Nadu is slowly facilitating that change.
The Banyan is an NGO that provides mental health services in institutional as well as community settings for people coming from distressed situations such as homelessness and poverty. And recently, it arranged for three ration cards among 12 of its clients with members of their chosen ‘sisters’ formally listed as family members. One family head was chosen from the three groups of four each and the ration card was issued in her name; each card listing four others – also The Banyan beneficiaries – as family members.
Kariyappan, the Lead Programme Manager of the Chengalpattu chapter of The Banyan, tells TNM that this could have applications for several of their clients in helping them live self-sufficient lives. The process isn’t the easiest though – many people who come to The Banyan have no documentation at all because they come from such difficult and distressing situations. Many are found to have mental illnesses, and the organisation facilitates their treatment in a hospital setup before giving them a choice to move to a community setup, where they can live in homes, with chosen housemates, usually also The Banyan beneficiaries. This is part of the organisation’s ‘Home Again’ programme.
The family heads in the case of the 12 women had received their Aadhaar and voter IDs a couple of years back. Many clients of The Banyan need documentation from scratch. Kariyappan explains that first, they had to get a Village Assistant Officer to give a letter attesting that the person(s) was a resident there. A psychiatrist with The Banyan gave a letter stating that this person was receiving treatment. These documents were taken to the taluk office to apply for an Aadhaar card, which was, in turn, used to apply for a voter card. With these two, beneficiaries were able to apply for a disability card, and then for health insurance. The Banyan has also worked with local government officials to conduct camps to register eligible residents of The Banyan as voters.
In December 2020, The Banyan – assisted by Malar Trust – applied for five ration cards. Each would have four chosen family members listed as beneficiaries. However, two got rejected, and Kariyappan says they don't know why. But the other three came through – while they received one ration card over a week ago, two are awaited.
When it comes to people such as those that The Banyan helps, people are often prejudiced. Questions about their competence, about how they will live on their own, make decisions on their own follow them – from when they try to get documentation to when they try to live in a community.
Amali, a former client of the Banyan, has been overseeing the Home Again programme in Trichy with her sister, for five years. They have 45 persons under their care. Getting documentation for those who have none has been difficult because of harmful stereotypes. “Authorities hesitate to issue any kind of supporting documents thinking that this could be part of a scam, since we apply for ration cards for 15-20 people in bulk. Banks also hesitate, thinking that persons with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities might be cheated easily, and so, don’t want to help with opening an account,” she says.
There are others like Amali, who are giving back, proving that The Banyan’s approach not only makes reintegration possible, but also that people can thrive with the right support and become self-reliant. “We have a choice-based, person-centric setup,” says Kariyappan. When those who come under The Banyan’s care are in institutional setup undergoing treatment, the organisation has regular sessions with them teaching them how to manage money, how to communicate, how to resolve conflicts. “They’re not used to living at home anymore – many of them have been homeless. Over time, as they start improving, we take them out, give them an allowance, and they buy what they want. We do a reintegration trial and monitor, because the home environment is different from the hospital environment. If they need further treatment, we take them back to the hospital and facilitate that,” Kariyappan explains.
Once someone is deemed ready for reintegration, The Banyan takes a backseat role, monitoring from afar, ensuring they are okay and provided for. Vocational training is given, and those who want to, take up jobs. Others do housework in their homes and are monetarily compensated by The Banyan. They decide how to spend their day, involve themselves in group activities and so on.
Women engaged basket weaving as part of their day activities under The Banyan
Srividya, a 51-year-old is also a former client turned employee at The Banyan. She was rescued by the organisation in 2014, after a call from the police. She had come to Chengalpattu with her mother, and was cheated by a person who promised them a house. Srividya had lost her job and soon after, her mother died of a heart attack. Srividya remained in a lodging with her, not realising she was dead for almost a day. She tells TNM that when people from The Banyan came to help, and she was not convinced initially, they did not force her. Eventually, though, she went with them, and got treatment for depression and schizophrenia before she shifted to a group home.
Today, Srividya works as a librarian assistant at The Banyan Academy of Leadership in Mental Health (BALM) and lives independently with two other beneficiaries of The Banyan. She helped Kariyappan fill out the documentation to get ration cards for the 12 women.
She emphasises the importance of letting people have autonomy about who they call family. “The authorities don’t understand that it can get really difficult for people who do not have families, like me,” she says. Srividya lost her father to diabetes and does not receive help or much communication from her maternal uncle in Kolar Gold Fields. “I would rather that my two co-living mates be on my ration card as family. Having a ration card with the three of us as a family unit would make things easier and allow us to be independent,” she adds.
Srividya, who works as a librarian assistant at BALM
Kariyappan points out that they have faced prejudices from village residents when The Banyan residents have been rehomed in that community. “They call our clients ‘mental’, ‘pagal’, and other such names, and say that they are afraid for their children. But we work to educate them and bust myths, and speak to them about mental health issues. Over time, we have seen them change, accept these people, help them, invite them for community celebrations and local events too. Our reintegrated people become productive members of the society then,” he says.
Srividya also points out that change is possible with acceptance and compassion. “I was educated at a KV, and was a teacher. But I was bullied since I was a child. When people say ‘she is mad’, they don’t understand that their perception and shunning could also be factors in driving someone to be in that mental state.”
(With inputs from Anjana Shekar)
Note: All the stories and photos here are shared with the consent of the people featured, who are both clients and peer advocates of The Banyan.