April 26, 2012

INDIA: It's all about feeling secure in Kolkata

KOLKATA, Wet Bengal / The Telegraph / April 26, 2012

Member count mirrors helpline hope for elderly

By Karo Christine Kumar
Sukla Taraphder’s first call of the day at 6.30am, for the last three years, has been to Pronam, to find out from the night duty officer who had dialled the helpline for senior citizens and why.

“When we started in June 2009, the number of senior citizens registered with Pronam was about 300. Within a year, the count went up to 1,600. Now, after three years, the number of registered members is 5,200 (the number of existing members is 4,976, some have died, others have shifted),” says the administrator of the 24-hour helpline for senior citizens jointly set up by Calcutta police and The Bengal, an organisation of eminent citizens.

A sense of security and quick remedies that Pronam offers to the elderly — 90 per cent of the members are between 60 and 80 years old — are the top reasons for the increase in member count.

“We are very secure under Pronam,” said 74-year-old Samir Bose. “I had a problem with the promoter of my building and so I took help from the police through Pronam and things are being sorted out,” said the active septuagenarian at a movie screening organised for the members at Nandan II on Poila Baisakh.

“It’s all about feeling secure. Just knowing that someone will come and knock on the door and say, ‘We are with you’ is a relief,” said S.N. Ghosal, 87, from Behala.

Health considerations take many to Pronam. While for Geeta Bhattacharjee, 65, being part of an umbrella organisation like Pronam means “discounts on medicine”, for B. Majumder, 72, from Behala, the membership card holds the promise of “easier access to an ambulance or a bed in hospital during an emergency”.

The foundation allows the aged to overcome extreme loneliness. “My husband and I are very lonely. We wish to go out but we don’t have any company. We want to talk but there is no one to talk to. Most of our friends have died. So sometimes I call Pronam just to talk to someone,” said N. Chatterjee (name changed), 68, whose children are abroad.

Sukla, the 63-year-old administrative officer called ‘mashima’ by most, answers many of the calls herself. “My husband tells me I have a 24-hour job,” joked the retired police officer (she used to be the OC at the women’s grievance cell).

Regular communication often forges personal bonds. “We would organise an ambulance to take one of the members and his wife to Fortis Hospital for dialysis. After six months of this, he died. Everyone from the ambulance driver to the coordinator cried. We tell ourselves that we must keep an emotional distance but you can’t help it,” said Sukla.

“Once a lady called me to say that her son had asked her and her husband to vacate their house for three days since he was coming down from London with his family. ‘Where will I go? Who will I ask for shelter?’ she kept asking. So I asked her to lodge a written complaint with Lake police station but she was hesitant. We called the son to tell him that there was a complaint against him without mentioning that it was from his mother. We did this because even one complaint against an NRI can result in visa cancellation. When I called the lady after her son’s visit to ask her how she was, she said she had a wonderful time,” said Sukla.

Even problems that are not grave are attended to. “Once someone left a bag in a taxi that we tracked down. Sometimes, members call to complain of noise pollution. We alert officers of the local police station on patrol. Many call to complain about cars parked in front of their gate. Someone even called to say a dead rat was lying in front of his house. We cannot say no, so we sent someone to remove it,” said Ruby Singh, 24, a night duty executive at Pronam’s office in Ballygunge police station.

Each of the 48 police stations that were under Calcutta police before 17 more were created in the added areas has at least one officer and one or two sub-ordinates dedicated to Pronam.

The Lake police station has the maximum number of registered members: 510. The minimum number of registered members in a police station area is 10.

Of the new police stations, only Parnasree is offering Pronam services.

“If every locality sets up a small committee to keep in touch and provide solace to senior citizens, the police will help. That itself would make a big difference,” said police commissioner R.K. Pachnanda.

After the extension of Calcutta police’s jurisdiction, Pronam has started a pilot project at the newly created Parnasree police station. Under the project, a leader or a “pilot” appointed from among registered members in the area becomes the mediator between senior citizens and Pronam officers.

Sankar Majhi, 75, the first “pilot”, said: “We hold meetings once a month with the 39 members in the area under the police station. The nature of problems ranges from ill treatment by sons or daughters to health issues like getting a bed in a hospital.”

“After the success of the pilot project in Parnasree, we are trying to launch it in the other added areas like Kasba. It will reduce pressure on the police and the members too will be able to connect better with people from their same age group,” said Sundeep Bhutoria, general secretary of The Bengal. 

The Pronam helpline number is 91-33-24190740.

 Copyright © 2012 The Telegraph.
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