My meeting with Bir was as accidental as it was fortunate. I met him on Sunday evening of 13th November 2011. I was with my old friend Umendra Dutt (founder and president of Kheti Virasat Mission – www.khetivirasatmission.org). The reason for our meeting was to include some politicians in our struggle for “translating ecological issues into political rallying point”. Bir was the very first politician that we had approached. Umendra had organized a meeting in Ludhiana on 26-27 November with like minded people from all walks of life (like eminent journalist Kuldeep Nayer, social activist Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, Ex jathedar Damdama Sahib Sr. Amreek Singh and many more). We were hoping that we will be able to make our point on Ecological Emergency in Punjab to Bir and he will associate with our movement one way or the other. We were also joined by Dr. Amar Singh Azaad (a tireless crusader against chemical farming and an advocate of holistic healthcare) and my friend Pavittar Bhinder.
We didn’t have to try too hard to get Bir talking. Dr. Azaad told us that Bir was the first person to call him a few days back when he had read Dr. Azaad’s article “Punjab, a dying civilization” in a newspaper. This was the first time that Bir and Dr. Azaad were meeting in person, but they had already shared notes on environmental challenges of Punjab and its devastating affects on health of its people. Not only this, Bir was reading the best seller on Cancer titled “Emperor of All Maladies: Biography of Cancer” by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. This took Dr. Azaad by surprise as this book was very new on the shelf and only the people most concerned about cancer epidemic in Punjab would know about it. Five minutes into our meeting, I knew we were talking to the right man. He was very quick to grasp our plan as if it was his own. Next one and a half hour we would sit and listen to his experiences in and out of state assembly. This meeting was about to change my impression of Bir in particular and of our politicians in general.
Bir had raised concerns about disappearance of some bird species back in 80s when he spoke for about two hour in the assembly on the issue. He recalled how the opposition MLA Surjit Singh Barnala complained that Bir was wasting time of the house. Such insensitivity shown by Barnala towards birds was unforgivable for Bir and he never spoke to him ever after, even when Mr. Barnala became Chief Minister of Punjab. (I could see how apathy of today’s politicians towards Environment came about gradually. Today we have many more people like Mr. Barnala in the house and very few like Bir).
But I was touched the most by a rather unrelated experience that Bir narrated. He told us that his MLA constituency Kharar (his X-constituency) is the only one in India where government schools have medicines and supplies to cater to girl student’s needs during their menstrual cycles. When I first heard this, I thought it was not that big a deal. After all there are so many other things that need improvement in government schools! But Bir’s narration convinced me how serious this issue was. Recalling how this scheme came about Bir was visibly emotional. I will let Bir narrate his story from here on (the names of people and places have been changed):
… One day I was passing through a village in my constituency and realized that the school was closed. I stopped to inquire from the peon of the school and learned that a few days back a girl student had passed away. The teachers had declared half-day leave as they were to visit the bereft family. Next day I again visited the school to know more from the teacher as to what terrible thing had happened to the young girl. ‘It was a suicide’, replied the teachers. I was really saddened and thought of meeting the parents of the decreased girl. Her name was Kiran.
It was a very poor family. Kiran’s father was making a living by driving a cart to move goods. He was left with a son and a daughter-in-law in his family. His wife had passed away sometime back. He was inconsolable and tried to avoid talking about his daughter to me. Then he gave in and directly told me ‘Sir you are the reason that my daughter is no more’. Obviously this took me by a surprise and shock. The poor cart-man went on to tell his tale, “My daughter stood first in 8th class. She was a very good student; a very good child. But I stopped her from going to school after that as I could not afford her education. We also needed another pair of hands to earn our living. She begged me many times that I should let her attend school but I refused; I had to. Then one day I was in the city where you were speaking in a public function. You said that ‘a man can not do anything worse to his daughter than to stop her from attending school. It was the greatest sin that a father can commit against his daughter’. I was so moved by your words that I decided to send my daughter to school and let her complete her education against all odds. I decided that I will run my cart a couple of extra hours if I have to, but my daughter will study. I immediately came home and next day my daughter was back in school. She stood first even in 9th! But eventually it was the school that killed my daughter.”
I was so sad to hear his half story! He had blamed me for everything but still had not revealed the reason for which his daughter had to pay such a high price! He did not give me anything more than that. But I knew that I was going to reach to the bottom of this issue. Next day I talked to all the teachers one by one to know if anything bad had happened to the girl in the school. I even threatened to file a police case and investigate. But no one came forward. Then I talked to all the girls in the class one by one and asked if Kiran was friends with anyone. Some girls started crying but did not say much. At that time I wrote my address on the black board and appealed to the girls to write to me an anonymous letter if they had anything to share.
Eight months later I received a letter that shook me beyond my imagination. One of Kiran’s friends had written to me in full detail the events that forced this bright young girl to take her own life. In short, this is what had happened.
“Kiran did not know much about ‘menstrual cycles’ when they started for the first time. She was in the school at that time. The teachers made her walk all the way to her home while boys made fun of her. To add to Kiran’s agony, she was beaten by her brother and sister-in-law when she reached home (because they had only one explanation for this; Kiran was sleeping around with some boy!!). Over the next few months, this happened a number of times; and every time Kiran had to go through the same horror. Her brother and sister-in-law became more and more intolerant and boys on her way back teased her all the more. She started carrying this unknown stigma for no fault of her own.
One day again she started bleeding suddenly and severely in the school. Again the teachers forced her to go to her home. Terrified by the humiliation and with no one around to help and understand her, Kiran decided to do the unthinkable. That same night she would hang herself out of helplessness and humiliation.”
I was shattered and deeply ashamed after reading that letter. Ashamed at the lack of knowledge among our public about such delicate issues; ashamed at sheer apathy and insensitivity of people; ashamed at our system that promised so much but delivered so little. I decided to do something about this issue.
The very next day I put things in motion. The schools were given a mandate to keep a certain number of medical in order to help any girl student who might need help during her menstrual cycles. Fresh clothes were also made available so that the girls could change if they have to. The government of Punjab funded the project and I made sure that everyone in the staff understood the seriousness of this initiative. From that day on, this scheme has been in place.
With a heavy heart, we listened to Bir. Kiran’s story holds a mirror to us all about ruthlessness and brutality of our society. It makes us want to change the system. And it is the work of a politician like Bir that makes us understand how important a politician can really be in dealing with such issues. In spite of the rhetoric of “politics is a dirty game” and “politicians are worse than criminals”, we can’t ignore good intentions of politicians like Bir Devinder Singh. At least I could not.
I do not know a lot about Bir and his political life. May be he has made some mistakes too. But I have no reservations in accepting the fact that he is a very sensitive politician at heart. And people like him can do a lot of good for our society only if we back them with our support when they need it. We need to reward the behavior that we seek from our leaders. Otherwise they will be tempted to try other things which may not be as ethical.
Yours is an encouraging story Mr. Bir Devinder Singh. I hope that your personal good and will gets institutionalized into our system. For now I am glad that people like you are making a difference, even if only at a personal and local level.