by Shraddha Kamdar | Dec 29, 2022, 16:42 IST
It’s Always Possible… and Dr Kiran Bedi is living proof of it, working relentlessly to improve the living conditions of prison inmates. She shares how she transformed Tihar Jail from a ‘human zoo’ to a ‘human dwelling. When Dr Bedi took over Tihar Jail in 1993, she inherited about 10,000 inmates
She has inspired thousands of young girls across the country, not only to become a part of the police force but also to stand up for what they know is the right thing to do. Dr Kiran Bedi, a trailblazer in her own right, has been at it for decades now, and is still working relentlessly for the improvement of health and hygiene of women inmates in Indian prisons – just one of the many activities she undertakes. Even before she set up the India Vision Foundation, the seed of which was sown at the ceremony at which she was conferred with the Ramon Magsaysay Award (the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for forging ‘positive relationships’ between people and the police through creative leadership during her tenure as Inspector General of Tihar Jail, she was working towards the betterment of the lives of the inmates.
“Let me tell you, a prison assignment is considered the last one for any field-oriented officer – termed the ‘punishment assignment’.”
“The reforms I had put in place when I took over as the IG of Tihar were making news and, with that in mind, during my acceptance speech I spoke of a foundation, with the primary objective of ‘saving the next victim’,” Dr Bedi tells us. When she took over Tihar, all she saw was victims, especially among the women. Saving the next victim under various circumstances was the aim; it could be anybody, even a person leaving the prison who looks for the next victim if he or she is not educated and rehabilitated. “Let me tell you, a prison assignment is considered the last one for any field-oriented officer – termed the ‘punishment assignment’. It was understood that when a serving officer is not liked, they are dumped in a prison, and, figuratively locked in by the big gates, they cannot be seen or heard,” she informs. “The resources are minimal, and, if there’s a riot or an escape, the officer is blamed.
“What I saw in Tihar was ‘Vulture Culture’. The authorities would come down upon us if anything went wrong, but, otherwise, the prison was very isolated as an institution.”
“What I saw in Tihar was ‘Vulture Culture’. The authorities would come down upon us if anything went wrong, but, otherwise, the prison was very isolated as an institution. It was attacked from all directions with no connection among organisations. When I took over in 1993, this is what I inherited – about 10,000 inmates of which close to 500 were women and 50 were children, all cramped inside,” she remembers. It gave her the impetus to slowly begin the transformation, which she later documented in her 1998 book It’s Always Possible. Dr Bedi terms what she saw then as a hell hole, a human zoo. When patrolling at night, she would hear the sounds of drug addicts reeling in pain. “Men were suffering because criminality and drug addiction are closely related to each other,” she explains. Her first step was to separate the addicts from the non addicts and then start treatment centres inside the prison under the aegis of her first foundation – Navjyoti – that was already working with addicts across eight centres in various police stations. Next came the counselling sessions with doctors, the yoga and the homoeopathy. A big step was to bar the entry of drugs into the prison by breaking the many illegal chains. “This is how I first normalised Tihar and it became a human dwelling from the human zoo it was,” she says, looking back.
“Children were part of this milieu, often growing up to be the next victims.”
At that time, children and women were in the most pathetic situation; they were the ‘poorest of the poor’ in the jail. “They did not have a woman superintendent, none of their needs were met, menstrual hygiene was just a faraway thought,” Dr Bedi recalls. “Children were part of this milieu, often growing up to be the next victims.” She called upon many for help, and the goodwill she enjoys ensured that help arrived from all quarters. Thus came in yoga, discourses by the Brahmakumaris, compulsory education for all between 9 am and 11 am with books donated by schools across the nation. The culmination was the Vipassana meditation that was conducted for a thousand prisoners who sat in on the retreat. Apart from creating history and becoming a Guinness World Record, it added to the much-needed magical transformation of the place. Various organisations followed, which brought about community building in the prison, leading to her 3C model – the collective, corrective, community-based model – which is still in place.
During all of this, the administrative and bureaucratic powers that be had only one instruction for Dr Bedi: Do what you want within the walls of Tihar; only do not come to us with problems or proposals (for funds). And she worked to that instruction: she set different policies within the premises – for education, entertainment, media, NGOs… She established a panchayat system within the jail and carved out a school for the children who lived there – with an inmate who built a shed and shelter for them. She negotiated to be paid for her time when she was invited for talks and asked for resources for the women and children of Tihar.
As the initiative continued and gathered strength, resources poured in from all fronts. As part of it, India Vision Foundation joined hands with Paree Sanitary Pads with its initiative #ChampionForChampions to raise menstrual hygiene awareness and enable women to make menstrual health a priority, apart from conducting pad distribution drives and facilitating gynaecologist sessions in different prisons in the Delhi NCR region, initiatives she hopes to take to the rest of the country. Sahil Dharia, Founder & CEO, Soothe Healthcare that makes Paree Sanitray Pads, says, “We want to positively impact the lives of women be it through our products or our initiatives. We are thankful to Dr Kiran Bedi and India Vision Foundation, who work diligently for women reforms at grass root levels, for helping us take the message of menstrual health to female prison inmates.”
“Initially, the women did not know what to do with the pads; they had never seen one, let alone used it. I had to teach them as a counsellor, but we managed.”
Dr Bedi further continues, “In 1994-’95, we did not have so many resources for menstrual health; we were managing with whatever we got. We even started a sanitary pad manufacturing unit with very crude machines in a Gurgaon prison, but they ended up being extremely noisy, and throwing up a lot of dust. We were struggling to find means to provide sanitary pads through other sources. And, then, at least initially, the women did not know what to do with the pads; they had never seen one, let alone used it. I had to teach them as a counsellor, but we managed.”
“There is a saying that, in life, you sow so others can eat the fruit. I am sowing the seeds, I’m eating the fruits, and I’m sowing the seeds again!”
Women and girls were hesitant to ask questions; most were accustomed to using a cloth and washing it to reuse, owing to which diseases spread. “With Paree Sanitary Pads, the Foundation is able to aim for better menstrual health among women prisoners now. And they’ve been receptive to this learning because they respect the doctor and the knowledge that the doctor brings,” she says, speaking of the feedback she has received from the women. This idea of feedback is not new to Dr Bedi; she had introduced it in the prison. “We used a mobile feedback box, a very unique thing anywhere in the world. There was a Norwegian prisoner who took to the Vipassana meditation; he went back to Oslo, and he wrote a letter to us on how he had benefited from it,” she smiles. Dr Bedi says her term as IG was a challenge that became a turning point in her life. “There is a saying that, in life, you sow so others can eat the fruit. I am sowing the seeds, I’m eating the fruits, and I’m sowing the seeds again!” she says. She explains that she sowed the seeds for human beings, she saw them grow and be employed, and now many of them are coming back to the Foundation as interns. And, with that, she says, life comes full circle.