In 2013, Savitriamma was a frail 84-year-old who had spent all her life nurturing her eight children. So one would imagine that she would have spent her senior years being well looked after in their company. However, the reality was far from it. One of her sons managed to dupe her into signing away her rights over property and all other assets in her name.
Savitriamma signed those papers in good faith, and remained oblivious of all that her son had done. A few days after she had signed the papers, her son promptly asked her to leave the house. None of the other children came to her rescue either – they were all party to the fraudulent transaction and had been paid a portion of money from the sale of the house.
Without knowing where to go, she proceeded to spend the next few months running from pillar to post – police stations, courts, and even meeting with influential MLA’s and MP’s. Yet, none of them were able to help her. At the brink of giving up, she landed up at Dr Ravindranath Shanbhogue’s office, seeking help.
“Honestly, I did not think I could help her. Up until then, I had never taken up such a case, and I told her that.”
“In her frustration, she asked me what sort of human rights NGO I was running if I could not even protect her basic rights. That was what pushed me to take up her case. I sought 24 hours of time from her to do my basic research, and promised to find a solution,” 72-year-old Dr Ravindranath tells The Better India.
Dr Ravindranath recalls that Savitriamma was suffering from Parkinsons, and was not even able to put her signature on the petition. He says, “I had to sign it on her behalf, which, according to Section 6 of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act, 2007, can be done. Three months after we filed the petition, her rights and assets were restored.”
It was this research that led Dr Ravindranath to stumble upon the Act, which was implemented to provide financial security, welfare and protection for senior citizens. It requires children to provide maintenance for their parents, and the government to provide old age homes and ensure medical care for senior citizens. Since then, there has been no stopping him in his quest to help 1,000 aggrieved senior citizens fight for their rights.
Who is Dr Ravindranath?
Perhaps this is best answered by starting with what Dr Ravindranath is not.
Not one for media attention, when asked about his own life, he is quick to redirect the conversation about the people his organisation works to help. He speaks passionately about all the work that the organisation is involved in, and shares each story with patience.
In 1992, he founded his NGO, Human Rights Protection Foundation (HRPF), Udupi. He says that it is perhaps the only one to operate with finances from no external sources. “We do not even have a bank account. Our running costs are kept to the bare minimum, and as and when a need arises, we pitch in and meet the need. I have so far never taken a single rupee from either the government or any individual or other organisation.” The organisation does not charge for any case that they take up and pursue – everything is done pro-bono.
In order to offer proper guidance and support to the aggrieved, he joined a law institute to equip himself with legal knowledge. “You must appreciate that today there are several organisations working on legal awareness. But when I started in 1992, there was no internet and even the basic knowledge about law was missing,” he says.
Dr Ravindranath’s own tryst with public service began in 1976, when during the emergency period in India, he was arrested.
Speaking about it, he says, “Having spent three months in jail, I came in contact with several hardened criminals, and the kind of police atrocity they were subjected to made me want to work for them. I was acquitted after three months because there was no charge made out against me. However, those three months in jail changed my perspective.”
Becoming the voice of the oppressed
“The judiciary seemed to be burdened with cases, and was considered out of reach for people with limited means. This is what prompted me to start a Consumer Forum way back in 1980 in Basrur, a small village in Udupi with a population of about 5,000 people,” he says. He adds that merely providing legal aid or help was of no use, so they started organising various legal awareness camps and events.
Over the years, the organisation has worked on various avenues related to human rights protection. Dr Ravindranath says, “Whether it is human trafficking issues pertaining to labour laws, or environmental protection, we have worked for it. It would be right to say that the last two decades have kept us all at the foundation extremely busy.”
But Savitriamma’s case was the first time the organisation found itself face to face with the problems that aggrieve elderly parents.
“Within a week of the success we got with Savitriamma, we had 700-odd cases with similar circumstances, who were seeking our help. They continue to trickle in and today, we see about four to five cases each week,” says Dr Ravindranath, adding that for all the cases that the NGO has handled so far, no money has been charged. He also says that even basic costs like printing of the petition and filing are not charged for.
While Savitriamma’s case was the first one that Dr Ravindranath took up, he says that each one has been both rewarding and painful at the same time.
When asked why he continues to do this, even though he himself is a senior citizen now, he says, “I wish I had the answer to that. Whenever I see the people who have managed to get their money, assets and bank deposits back and live in their senior years in a dignified manner, I feel accomplished. It is because of their blessings and good wishes that I continue to prod along.”
The modus operandi that the organisation follows is very clear. Once a person comes in to register a complaint, the volunteers take down the entire history and also make a video recording of the facts. Dr Ravindranath says, “In some instances, we saw that just after a case was registered with us, the senior citizen passed away. This happened to six senior citizens who came to us to register complaints. To avoid such foul play, we make sure to record the person and keep it with us as evidence, if the need arises. Since this practice, the sudden unexplainable deaths have stopped.”
The work that Dr Ravindranath and his team do is very hard – to listen to such sad stories of families turning on you is emotionally draining. Regardless, the team continues to work hard to find them justice.
To read more about the work that the team does, you can log in here.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)