Erwadi, near Ramanathapuram is considered a holy place by many people irrespective of their religious denominations. People from all over the country bring the mentally ill to this place seeking a miracle cure from the holy water or oil from a lamp in the Dargah of Quthbus Sultan Syed Ibrahim Shaheed Valliyullah. The Dargah has been in existence for nearly 400 years and has an enviable reputation among the religious although it must be mentioned that it is ill – deserved. A number of imitation dargahs have sprung up all over the place and they are all alike with regard to the primitive measures they endorse in the name of treatment. Tragedy has become the defining attribute of Erwadi as a result of quackery and criminal negligence. The festering cesspool that is Erwadi merely reflects the abominable conditions prevalent in India as regards the care of the mentally ill.
It has been reported that the treatment facilities or safe houses if they may be called that generally use inhumane and severely outdated methods. The practitioners in these establishment recommend prayers and chanting for their charges and though scientifically unsound, it is at least harmless compared to the other techniques that come into play. The etiology of the mental condition is attributed to evil spirits and the inmates are whipped or beaten to drive away such malign influences. Violent patients are tied up or chained, often together. The premises are unhygienic and unsuitable for purposes of treating the mentally ill. Despite repeated complaints about these unsound and unsafe practices the local as well as state administrative officials chose to turn a blind eye till tragedy struck and galvanized them into action, although it would later prove to be largely ineffectual.
On August 6, 2001, fire claimed the lives of 28 mentally affected persons who were inmates of the Moideen Badusha Mental Home. The victims had all been chained and no doubt struggled in vain even as fate dealt its final terrible blow that was the culmination of a life spent in ignominy. The outrage generated by this horrific affair prompted government officials to clamp down on the safe houses. The activities of the safe houses were monitored and the ones without licenses were shut down. Attempts were made to implement guidelines for maintaining safety and basic healthcare standards in homes for the mentally ill. Severe psychiatric cases were transferred to Government hospitals. It was believed that the crisis was past and the response adequate. But it was not to be.
Fire claimed six more lives in Erwadi when a mentally affected woman set a line house ablaze on January 25th, 2009. This incident focused attention on the coastal town again and revealed that unauthorized safe houses continued to flourish and the problem was far from resolved. A host of other issues were also revealed. Pilgrims continue to flock to the place seeking a divine cure for their ailments. Many are left behind to roam the streets in their precarious condition and they are like time bombs just waiting to go off. The police arrested 28 mentally ill patients on the 29th of January, 2009 and they were admitted to the Government hospital later. This situation is not exclusive to Erwadi as it in India it is not an uncommon sight to see the mentally affected wandering on the streets alone and uncared for, making them easy prey for the human predators on the prowl. Something needs to be done and soon. Meanwhile, in Erwadi the death toll mounts.