Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Giving Bant Singh a Hand

There was a wild round of applause from the gathered crowd of agricultural workers and farmers as Bant Singh proceeded to do what no one, even a few months ago, imagined he was capable of - lift a red flag with his own hand.

Just over a year ago Bant, a Dalit singer and labour activist, had lost both his arms and a leg when local upper caste landlords in his native village of Jhabbar in Mansa district of Punjab had beaten him up severely. This was ‘punishment’ for the long legal and political battle he had fought and won over the rape of his minor daughter by goons supported by the local Congress Sarpanch.

But on 4 February 2007 at a public function in Burlada, outside Mansa town, Bant Singh received a state-of-the-art artificial limb capable of restoring some of the basic functions of his missing hand.

The limb manufactured by the reputed German prosthetic maker Otto Bock was custom built to suit Bant Singh’s needs following a rehabilitation drive launched by the Delhi based Forum for Democratic Initiatives (FDI). Funds for purchasing the artificial arm, that uses electronic sensors to move fingers and costs close to Rupees Four Lakhs, were collected from the general public with contributions coming from both within India and abroad.

“ See, I can drink a cup of tea now on my own!” says Bant gleefully later back in Mansa town, where he is camped for the past fortnight campaigning for the CPI (ML) Liberation candidates in the Punjab assembly elections. Bant is taking a break from his ongoing treatment at St.Stephens Hospital in New Delhi where he has been admitted since September last year.

According to doctors he will require a major surgery on his amputated leg to joint together two broken bones that have not yet healed since the attack on him in January 2006. That operation is likely to keep him confined to bed for several months.

“I want to see Bant Singh walk back home in his village” says Dr Mathew Verghese, the lead orthopedic surgeon in charge of his treament.

Bant has also received an artificial leg that he already uses to walk around. However in the absence of arms it is difficult to maintain balance.

Currently the plan is to fit Bant with one electro-mechanical arm from Otto Bock while the other prosthetic will be a less sophisticated device meant to provide only basic support. At a future date, depending on availability of funds, plans are to provide him with other devices that can improve his quality of life and make him as independent as possible.

While Bant lost his arms to caste violence in Punjab many agricultural workers routinely lose limbs while working on thresher machines in the fields. Though there are no accurate figures available their number runs into thousands and there is no program for rehabilitating them.

Again, while several institutions around India make artificial legs, including the famous Jaipur foot, there is none that makes artificial hands, which require more sophisticated technology. In a country that boasts of being a leader in satellite and nuclear expertise surely it shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with know-how for good quality arm prosthetics.

“There is basically a lack of concern on the part of the government for the welfare of ordinary working people who lose their limbs to violence or in accidents and this needs to be urgently redressed” says Radhika Menon, Convenor, Forum for Democratic Initiatives.

FDI also plans to undertake another initiative to teach Bant Singh to read Punjabi while he undergoes treatment in hospital. Though an accomplished and popular folk singer Bant, like many Dalits in the area he comes from, cannot read or write.

Already a hero among the Dalits of Mansa for his guts and fighting spirit, a literate Bant could become an inspiration among them for other reasons also. And the power of knowledge in the hands of the Dalits may well be what is required to take all of Punjab by storm soon.