Begging a blot on shining India
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The news of Abhinav Bindra bagging a gold medal in the shooting event at the Beijing Olympics sounds music to the ears. So does the news from Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) that Chandrayan the Indian mission to the moon is all set to take off this year. Definitely every Indian feels proud, especially when it comes at a time when our young and vibrant nation has turned 61 and celebrating its Independence Day on Friday, August 15, 2008.
However, there are some glaring realities that stare at our face when we walk around our motherland on the eve of our Independence. In such sites, the cry of humanity seems to be at large. I can narrate a few anecdotes from my personal experience to illustrate this point.
On a sunny afternoon, I stopped at the Chidambram, some 58 kilometer south of Pondicherry to see the beautiful 13th century temple dedicated to Lord Nataraja. As I walked down the dusty lane to take a look at the fabled temple, I was mobbed by few young females, holding infants in their arms, begging for alms. I was aghast to see a big number of them approaching any foreigner visiting the temple. Most of them were young woman invariably holding toddlers; some of them were sucking their open breast. The cry of humanity haunted me at this site. The call of my consciousness forced me to part away with all the loose change that I had at that point of time.
At another occasion I stood at Chennai’s Madyakailash traffic junction, notorious for long traffic jams. This is a place one has to take on the way to the IT corridor, the Tidal Park. Here one can spot a blind orchestra playing live music from the truck parked near the traffic junction and several visually challenged persons moving around with a collection box begging for alms. The soulful music played by the orchestra forced many like me to part with the loose changes to those visually challenged person.
A blot on Mera Bharat Mahan
These two episodes minutely profile the problem of beggars in the country. There are few distinct type of people engaged in this activity. One category forms of the old aged persons. Those with physical deformity like absence of limbs or having wound forms another category. Then there are child beggars both boys and girls. Young females with infants and blinds form another category. The transgender make yet another category.
There are several places where one may find beggars. One can spot them at local trains, railway platforms, railway satiations, place of worship. They are also found on the traffic signals, subways over bridges, market place and any other place where large number of people generally frequent every day. In short, it’s difficult not to spot a beggar in the Indian social milieu.
The most interesting aspect about these beggars is that in spite of being an epitome of abject poverty, misery, and pains some them are musical artists par excellence. One can find them play old songs, often full of pathos to draw attention and evoke sympathy. Often they would take the name of god and say’ “if you give them one paisa, god will give you ten lakhs.” There are some who can sing incredible folk songs that impresses the audiences so much that they are forced to give them alms.
Cause of the problem
There are several reasons why one is forced into begging. It could range from abject poverty to family problems to failure in business or poor health. Some are forced to beg because their family members have abandoned them. Some women are abandoned by their husband, while some old men are abandoned by their children. Most of them take to begging out of compulsion that later becomes a choice.
While some beg for survival, there are others who take to it easy to earn money. In Chennai rough estimates say that the amount involved in begging roughly could be around Rs.15 crore a year. A member of a blind orchestra standing at the traffic junction could make nearly Rs.2, 000 a day. One good day can fetch up to Rs.200. The small children could even add up to those numbers as they evoke more sympathy.
The census of India counts beggars as non-working persons and begging is an offence under the Prevention of Begging Act, 1945. As per Section 144 of the Indian Railways Act, illegal hawking and begging are banned at railway stations. However, the fact remains that no one can escape them visiting public places.
There are reports that suggest the existence of organized racket involved in this activity. This could be discerned from children seen begging in residential colonies for school fees. These kids carry bonafide certificates from schools which they don’t actually attend but doing this as a job that fetches them Rs 100 a day. Similarly the involvement of significant number of visually impaired persons or females with infants points towards the existence of some gangs. The police however deny this fact and say they have specific complaints regarding any such gangs.
Punishment and rehabilitation
Often beggars find themselves on the wrong side of law. Several beggars complain of police harassment that often chase them away or demand money for letting them to beg. When a person is picked up from the street for begging, either he or she is taken to government remand homes or to the care centers run by non-governmental organizations.
In government run remand homes the beggars could stay up to 15 days and if convicted spend up to three years. Those who stay for long time are taught carpentry, tailoring, weaving and pottery but those who are for short duration often returns to their places and continue begging.
Compared to the government run homes the NGOs are involved in rehabilitating the physically disabled, aged or the juvenile beggars are doing better job. There most of the old that are on the verge of death are given end-of-life care. Those healthy are provided an opportunity for alternative livelihood through education and skills.
The Way out
The exercise of all this is to tell that every developmental index of India falls flat when we see these living signboards scream about the darker side of our county. This concern becomes much more serious when our nation is turning 61. It’s high time that every countryman should take a pledge to weed out such harsh realities from our society. There should calibrated efforts made to house those who are waiting a call from almighty, and to rehabilitate those who are looking for a dignified life. All this could come only dawn upon when there is a realization to think twice as this could be another day for us in the paradise.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org