No place to die | In Karnataka’s Ganagapura Deval Ganagapur the old and sick are are left to their fate – The Hindu

A shed near the sangam on the outskirts of Deval Ganagapur village in Afzalpur taluk, Kalaburagi district, Karnataka. | Photo Credit: Arun Kulkarni
Ganagapura appears serene to a first-time visitor, with its irrigated lush green sugarcane fields and the famous Sri Dattatreya temple at the confluence of the Bhima and Amarja rivers. But in mid-October, a chilling incident in this famous temple town in Kalaburagi district in north Karnataka — of a pack of dogs devouring the body of a destitute woman in her late sixties — revealed to the world an inhuman practice that has gone on with little intervention from the authorities for as long as the residents can remember.
Old or infirm people are often abandoned by their families in this town, which is located in the border taluk of Afzalpur and is popularly known by devotees as Deval Ganagapur (‘Deval’ in Marathi means temple). Survival is not easy in Ganagapura: temperatures in the daytime during summer can soar beyond 45 degrees Celsius and dip to 8 degrees Celsius during winter. Yet, this inhuman practice has carried on, in the belief that the holy place can provide a “natural cure” for those with mental illnesses and for those said to be “possessed by evil spirits”.
Residents say that for a long time, those with mental illnesses were brought to the town and abandoned by their kith and kin. But now, even elderly people and ailing parents and siblings are being left in the town to meet their inevitable end. Those who are abandoned sustain themselves with the free food that devotees, who mainly come from Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Goa, provide as offerings to Lord Dattatreya. Besides, residents of the town offer food to anyone who comes asking for it (Maadhukari) after the afternoon prayers at the temple. This is because there is a local belief that Lord Dattatreya goes tapping on the doors of houses in different guises after the prayers.
This brutal practice of abandoning the aged or infirm at Ganagapura may have remained little known beyond the region but for the horrific incident that came to light on October 18. Officials maintain that the identity of the dead woman is not yet clear, but locals recognise her as Mallamma. Baanobee, a fruit vendor who sits near the temple, says Mallamma, who came from a village in Bidar district, used to work as a domestic helper in a couple of houses, but stopped following health complications. She eventually developed gangrene in both her legs.
Officials say the woman was last seen the day before the gruesome incident, near Dyavamma temple, which is located on the way to Ganagapura sangama (confluence). Since the area was dark, the woman’s death went unnoticed initially. The incident came to light only the next morning. By then, her body had been partially devoured by stray dogs.
As the incident sent shock waves beyond the town, the Chief Executive Officer of Kalaburagi Zilla Panchayat, Girish Badole, rushed to the spot. Twenty abandoned people in the town were immediately shifted to the government old age home in Kalaburagi. Badole said he directed officers in the Department for the Empowerment of the Differently Abled and Senior Citizens to file a police complaint. He also directed the officers to take up an awareness campaign in and around Ganagapura so that abandoned senior citizens can take shelter in the old age home.
Local residents say that deaths of old or ailing persons on the streets, or in the swollen Bhima river, or at the sangama are “common”. Just a day before the death of the woman identified by the residents as Mallamma, another unidentified person, who was about 70 years old, was found dead on the streets of the temple town. And on October 20, yet another unidentified woman, about 60 years old, was found dead at a shelter near the sangama. According to the police, in the last three years, 11 abandoned old people have died due to drowning. In 2022 alone, four people have drowned in the river so far.
Police officials express helplessness in identifying the abandoned people. “They often don’t reveal their names or the places from where they have come,” says a police official. This, the official says, could be because of their age or mental illnesses. Usually, family members take advantage of the large crowds which gather in the temple town on auspicious days, to abandon these people, say local residents.
There has been an alarming increase in the number of old people who are abandoned in the temple town, say officials of the temple administration and priests. These people hail mostly from the villages of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, besides Karnataka.
The police, revenue authorities and temple authorities have no information about the number of abandoned people living in the town. Neither do the authorities have any official figures on the number of deaths. They reckon that on average, 15 to 20 abandoned people die every year. However, locals say the numbers are higher. Temple Executive Officer Namdev Rathod says there have even been instances of three or four abandoned people being cremated in just a month. If an abandoned person dies around the temple, the police are informed and they try to collect details about the family members of the dead. But most often, this exercise goes in vain, as the deceased have no basic documents on them. Earlier the Gram Panchayat used to perform the last rites. Over the last decade, this responsibility has been passed on to the temple (Muzrai and Endowment Department), says Rathod.
Most of the abandoned people seem unwilling or unable to speak. A woman in tattered clothes, sitting in the middle of the street on the way to the Outhambara math where the Bhima and Amarja rivers meet, says with some difficulty that her name is Sunanda. She says she is from Solapur in Maharashtra. She cannot recall how she came to live in this temple town in Karnataka.
The primary health centre in Ganagapura is located 2 km away from the sangama and a kilometre away from the Dattatreya temple. Abandoned people reportedly do not visit it.
Though the temple runs three dharmshalas (shelters), most abandoned persons prefer to stay in a shed at the sangama. Two dharamshalas have 18 rooms each, while the third has 35 rooms, says Rathod.
Also read | Depression, general anxiety form 34% of mental health cases in Karnataka: Report
Most of the abandoned people relocated to the shed at the sangama, 2 km from the main temple, on the banks of the Bhīma, after restrictions were brought in a few years ago on staying for the night at the temple premises, says Dattappa Nimbarga, second division assistant at the temple. A group of abandoned women, who have been living in Ganagapura for decades, made permanent huts near Bhasma Gudda (the holy ash hill). Sixty-year-old Shantabai from Pune, who lives in one such hut, recalls how her children abandoned her. But her companions refuse to talk about their families.
The tragic incident of the woman’s death on October 18 has now compelled the authorities to address the issue. Kalaburagi Deputy Commissioner Yeshwant Gurukar says a destitute rehabilitation centre will be established in Deval Ganagapur. The authorities have issued instructions for surveys to be conducted to identify the abandoned people. “We are collecting details about the relatives and family members of all those who have been abandoned. Cases will be booked against them under Section 24 (exposure and abandonment of senior citizen) of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007,” he says.
Apart from bolstering the infrastructure to care for abandoned persons and addressing issues of rehabilitation, there is also an urgent need to ensure their mental well-being. In the sangama, it is not uncommon to see people tied in chains to pillars and trees. Some of them have caregivers, but some have no caregivers in sight.
Thirty-five-year-old Kaveri came to Deval Ganagapur with her mother Draupadi two months ago. Kaveri, a native of Naubad in Bidar district, is suffering from paraplegia, and walks with the help of a walker. “I believe my ailment will be cured at this holy place. I will stay here until I fully recover,” she says.
Some distance away, 25-year-old Jyotiram is tied with a chain. His mother Jhanabai Raut, who is feeding him, says her son is a victim of “black magic” that is locally called “Banamati”. She believes that he will be cured only if he eats the prasad offered by people at the temple.
Psychiatrists say that the practice of people abandoning relatives with physical or mental health concerns in Ganagapura must be addressed in an empathetic and nuanced manner. Psychiatrists Irfan Mahagavi and Namdev Chavan, both appointed at the district mental health unit under the National Health Mission, recall a particular case they attended to during a camp at Deval Ganagapur in 2015. Amul, a young man from Maharashtra, was brought to the town by his parents who believed that he was possessed by an evil spirit. However, the parents cooperated when they were approached by the authorities, and Amul was shifted to the district general hospital in Kalaburagi where he was kept under observation for a week. “We diagnosed it as schizophrenia. After counselling and medication, the patient became stable,” says Chavan.
Mahagavi cites practical difficulties of providing psychiatric and other health care in Ganagapura. It is a difficult task to counsel or keep track of the medical histories of those who are tied up at the sangama, he says. “We cannot find the same patient on our next visit. Shifting them to a rehabilitation centre is next to impossible. We need to be aware of the practical obstacles here and address them,” he says. Mahagavi stresses on the need for better inter-departmental coordination to resolve the issue. For the last eight years, the team has been holding camps in taluk headquarters and in remote places in Kalaburagi.
Mahagavi points out that there is a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness: “Psychiatry and religious beliefs have traditionally had a difficult relationship. The psychiatrist should address a patient’s mental illness and allow them to continue with their beliefs in parallel. Though medical practice does not agree with the ‘bit of both’ theory of medicine as well as prayers, a psychiatrist has to be flexible while treating such cases.”

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Printable version | Nov 5, 2022 11:39:16 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/no-place-to-die-in-karnatakas-ganagapura-deval-ganagapur-the-old-and-sick-are-are-left-to-their-fate/article66096667.ece
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