Publication: Women's Feature Service
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 59130
Journal code: WNFS

New Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - Navin Devi's world fell apart one fateful day in 2009 when she received news of her husband's death. They had been married for 12 years but for much of their married life they had been forced to live apart. Her husband, a 'jawan' (soldier) with the Border Security Force (BSF) was invariably posted in the border areas, a long way from their village in Haryana. And so they lived, with Navin looking after the home and their son, and counting the days to the brief spell that would re-unite her with her husband, when he visited home. Then one day, she was told that he would no longer return.

Tears still well up in her eyes as she remembers him and recalls their times together. But dwelling on the past is a luxury Navin cannot indulge in, beset as she is with the problems of survival. But help finally did come. In a strange way, it was as if her husband stepped in once again to help her - through an organisation set up by the BSF. The BSF Wives' Welfare Organisation (BWWA) was formed precisely to reach out to women like Navin, the wives and daughters of the jawans who often served in far-flung areas.

India's borderlands, over which the BSF stands guard, are varied and often hostile in terms of living conditions. Kutch in Gujarat is as different from the hot, humid thickly forested borders of the Northeast, as it is from the freezing heights of Kashmir. Because of the inhospitable terrain and the nature of their work, there were many casualties in the BSF, many of which may not even be directly linked to action. The whole rationale for BWWA was to give the families of these personnel a sense of security and a feeling of having an extended family within the BSF. And it is because of this organisation, that Navin today can earn a livelihood for herself and her family through a store opened by BWWA in the CGO complex in Delhi that houses several government offices.

Navin runs this shop along with Nanumaya Thapa, the widow of another constable with the BSF and a mother of two little girls. Navin and Nanumaya are not isolated cases. Since its establishment in 1992, the BWWA has been engaged in promoting the welfare and security of those like Navin and Nanumaya and hundreds of others like them. An organisation based on the principle of 'women for women', it works towards the welfare and advancement of the wives of retired, deceased, disabled ad serving personnel of the BSF.

One of BWWA's major aims is to make the women it assists self-dependent. Which is why it runs vocational training including programmes that help these women learn skills like making 'agarbattis' (incense sticks), packaging biscuits and spices and tailoring garments for women and children.

The wife of the director general of the BSF traditionally becomes the president of the BWWA and it is she who gives direction to the organisation. The present president is Anjali Shrivastava, the wife of Raman Shrivastava, who is the current Director General of the BSF. This soft-spoken, multi-faceted woman also happens to be a talented artist. In her 50s, she became the BWWA president in August 2009, and has since been systematising and documenting the work that BWWA has been engaged in.

One of her first initiatives in her drive to make the organisation more dynamic was to celebrate Women's Day. Shrivastava made it mandatory that each battalion of the BSF celebrates the occasion across the country. The act was extremely symbolic. It forced each BSF personnel to reflect and acknowledge the role and contribution women make to society and at the personal level.

Shrivastava also realised that if BWWA has to perform its role, the principle of inclusiveness was essential. Involving the wives and children of constables on an occasion like the BSF Raising Day, in which only officers' families traditionally participated, was one of the steps she took to further this. She was also determined to raise awareness about social issues, so she ensured that both Health Day and Environment Day were celebrated across BSF battalions, with the latter marked by large-scale tree planting initiatives. Since self-dependence was their aim, projects like masala grinding and tailoring were introduced to ensure that the wives of BSF jawans could get some additional income. For this, the BWWA has tied up with Usha International, the well-known brand of sewing machines, to conduct a six-month tailoring course after which successful participants received professional certificates. Many of these projects proved profitable and since 2009, they have generated an income of Rs 1.68 lakh, which has gone some way in augmenting the incomes of families of the constables.

But what is perhaps the most creditable of all BWWA's activities has been its ability to reach out to those who need it most: Widows and daughters of personnel who have lost their lives. Recently, it was successful in providing accommodation to Shakuntala Devi, the widow of a BSF constable, who had served in the 42 Battalion. It has even been able to arrange marriages for 42 BSF widows. Women like Shilpa Chowdhury Mandal, the widow of Manwar Hussein Mandal, who is today happily married to Ukhandi Verma of the 77 Battalian Tripura Frontier. Children too have been looked after, through scholarships and special talent spotting programmes.

Talking of talent spotting, Shrivastava - who is an artist herself specialising in Tanjore paintings - after noticing some of the art work of BSF constables, hit upon the idea of holding an exhibition of their work in Delhi. The BWWA tied up with the Lalit Kala Akademi to organise it, and it proved to be a great success, encouraging BSF personnel and their family members to nurture their creative spirit despite the hardships that sometimes come their way. It was at this exhibition that Barnali, the daughter of BSF constable Nandlal Ravidas, found her painting being gifted to the Union home minister who had come to inaugurate the exhibition. Says the young girl with a wide smile, "I just could not believe it. It was such a wonderful and proud moment for me!"

BWWA's success can be measured by precisely such responses. Says Anjana Gupta, wife of Virendra Gupta, Inspector General (Personnel), who is the secretary of the organisation, "At the end of the day it's a very satisfying experience. If earlier public functions were about playing tambola, now there is a feeling of having done something constructive. Families of BSF personnel know that somebody cares for them."

( Women's Feature Service)

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