Sharmila Gupta (76) has been living alone at her Juhu home for the past seven months. Her children are settled in the US and Gupta, who walks with the help of a stick, cannot handle even routine chores.
Worried by increasing reports of domestic help robbing their employers, Gupta found peace of mind by registering herself and her maid with the senior citizens’ helpline (Tel No 1090) set up by the police in June 2007 after a spate of crimes against seniors across the city.
Even Mumbai's oldest citizen, Mariam Umar Sayed (108), a Khar resident, registered with Hamarisuraksha.com three months ago. This website was set up by the police on September 18, 2009, to help seniors register easily with the helpline.
An estimated 4 lakh senior citizens live alone in Mumbai, and they are particularly vulnerable to crime. According to surveys by non-governmental organisations in the past decade, 188 senior citizens have been killed. In 2009 alone, more than 30 were robbed or murdered; most of these crimes committed by domestic employees or ‘service providers' such as milkmen and newspaper delivery boys.
It's Mumbai's western region that has seen a surge in registrations in the last seven months; Gupta and Sayed are among the 14,098 residents of the Bandra-Andheri stretch who registered with the helpline.
However, initially, it was South Mumbai that clocked the most registrations — 4,038 to the western region's 3,091 by December 2009. Lack of awareness seemed to be the major hurdle.
However, that's changed. Registrations of citizens in Zones 8, 9 and 10 — Bandra to Amboli — now top the list. Police credit this to the sustained effort put in by officers and volunteers. "We reached out to each senior citizen and made sure they registered," said R. Badrinathan, chief strategist, Hamarisuraksha.com.
When the website was launched, each police station set a target of 25 registrations a day. However, that target was missed regularly because the elderly were scared to talk to police officers. "They complained that the police could not be trusted and if they gave their details it would make them more vulnerable," said Madhukar Choudhari, senior police inspector, Santacruz.
In the western region, police got in touch with volunteers like Rajiv Patel (45), who went door to door to convince seniors to register. The seniors, in turn, took the point better since it came from a social activist rather than a man in uniform. "Once we approached the elderly with a local person they knew, they listened to us," said Choudhari.
Patel, a Santacruz resident, said that the registration forms were in Marathi and were cumbersome to fill out because they asked for too many details. So lengthy were the forms that even the police could not fill out their target of 25 a day. They then set a lower daily target of 10, but even that was an uphill task.
"So, first of all, we simplified the forms," said Patel. "Then, we trained two constables from each police station. Now, it takes only a couple of minutes for a citizen to register."
Once the elderly fill in the details on a hard copy, the constables feed the information online. They then go back to the seniors and hand over a login ID and password so that they can fill in the remaining details themselves.
Though volunteers were roped in, even seven straight hours of work were barely enough to meet the daily target of 25.
So, they roped in groups like laughter clubs, seniors who met regularly in parks, temples and churches, etc. "After that, we started getting over 100 registrations a day, which helped bring the western region to the top of the list," said Patel. "I hope such efforts are started across the city."
The results are heartening. In Santacruz, for instance, of the estimated 7,000 senior citizens, 1,090 have already registered.
"I started the exercise in Santacruz and Juhu, but later Deputy Commissioner of Police K.M.M. Prasanna asked me to cover the Bandra-Oshiwara stretch," said Patel.
'Asking others to register too'
Dilip Chhatbar (61), a retired businessman, stays with his son and daughter-in-law at Sanjog building in Santacruz (West).
Three months ago, he had a bypass operation and was advised rest. For most of the day, Chhatbar and his wife are alone. The senior citizens’ helpline, 1090, is a huge help, they said. "On Tuesday, I was suffering from chest pain and my wife simply called the helpline and a doctor got to me within 10 minutes. This would not have been possible if we had not registered," said Chhatbar.
He is now urging his neighbours to register too. "An 80-year-old couple lives next door. I advised them to register with the helpline and set up an intercom to my house so I could call on their behalf in case of an emergency," said Chhatbar.
'I call helpline all the time'
Jyoti Mehta (63), a widow, stays in a one-bedroom apartment at Juhu and not with her sons because she needs her independence and doesn't want to disturb their families. She registered with Hamarisuraksha.com four months ago.
"I have been living alone for the past seven months and was scared initially to hire a maid, especially after I heard of the attacks on seniors living alone," said Mehta. "I knew that if I registered, I would be secure. I call the helpline all the time… if I need to chat with someone or even if I have a problem booking a gas cylinder."
Mehta said she knew that merely registering was not a guarantee of safety, "but if the police have all the data, even service providers will think twice before committing a crime".