Two sisters, Anuradha and Sonali Bahl, living in one busy corner of a middle class locality in the National Capital Region (NCR), are discovered in a condition of extreme starvation. The older sister, Anuradha, died of multi-organ failure shortly after she was rescued, while the other battles for her life in a Delhi hospital.
Is this a reflection of how vulnerable single women really are in world that is almost cruel in its prejudices and preoccupations? Is urban India increasingly becoming indifferent to the most vulnerable? Are urban Indians provoked to act only if their own lives or property are at stake?
The tragic saga of the Bahl sisters, while chilling in the social callousness and indifference it reflects, causes one to interrogate a milieu that leaves people “alone” in the name of respecting their “privacy.” What does one make of a neighbourhood where people find time to feed their pets but consciously avoid reaching out to those living next door who are in obvious need of help?
Nobody bothered to ring the doorbell of the Bahl residence in Sector 29 in NOIDA, where the two sisters had withdrawn into a deep depression. The local Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA) was well aware that the water and electricity connections had been disconnected from the apartment for non-payment of dues nearly four months earlier.
The only brother of the two sisters also stayed away although his home was just a short distance away.
The incident has alarmed the Capital and the National Commission for Women. It is now mulling over the possibility of conducting an inquiry into the issue. It has already sought a report from the state government and will also seek a comprehensive report from the local protection officer.
Yasmin Abrar, Acting Chairperson, NCW, who recently took over charge from the former chairperson, Girija Vyas, observed at a media meeting that her Commission was seized of the gravity of the situation. They have to ascertain whether the Noida sisters were under any kind of pressure, or had been held captive.
Abrar added that there was dire need for “civil society to recognise its moral responsibility” and stressed the importance of increasing awareness among people about the rights and security of single women. She also pointed to the need for greater coordination between local authorities, RWAs and civil society organisations, so that information could be shared for a quicker response to situations of this kind.
The Delhi Police has developed a regime by which it monitors the safety and security of senior citizens living in the Capital. Nalwa now believes that the time has come to set up security support systems for women who stay alone.
Dr. Pearl Drego, a senior Delhi-based psychotherapist, believes that it’s time the neighbourhood and the friends’ circle of such women took responsibility.
Social stigma plays a significant role in destroying the self-esteem of single women. According to a University of Missouri study that came out in 2010, although the number of single women has risen significantly in the United States, they continue to face prejudice and are constantly under pressure to conform to the conventional pathway of life.
The situation is no different in India which has 36 million single women. This figure is based from the 2001 census. There have been some important attempts to build support networks for this group, but much more work will have to go into this effort if social perspectives on single women are to be redefined at a national level.
The tragedy that befell the Bahl sisters may be an extreme example. But it reflects societal pressures that prevent single women to live productive lives.