I visited Bangalore city’s Beggar Home as a part of a RTI investigation that People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) is conducting into the functioning of this centre, following the spate of deaths that occurred here during August 2010. I knew that I was looking at an improved, sanitised, state-of-the-art destitutes’ centre that was now to show case country’s IT capital as also sensitive and caring to its beggars and destitutes. The Centre which once ran over capacity with close to 3000 inmates, now had 300 beggars confined within its walls, a well rounded meal daily program, provided by ISKCON, and computerised facilities – a high technology aid to tagging our poorest. The new set of personnel who replaced the former employees were courteous, co-operative, and facilitated our preliminary browse through the documents we were seeking via RTI.
When we arrived there, the morning’s enquiry into the beggars rounded up for the day was being conducted, for presentation before a magistrate. There were five men, in extreme states of abject poverty, and passive, numbed destitution. And then there was Her – anything between 40-60, dirty saree, unkempt straw hair, skinnier than a field scarecrow. She drew my attention with her loud complaints and protestations at what was being meted out to her possessions. She was a rag picker, a hoarder and a ‘collector’ of considerable property, for a beggar, and these were her treasures. They were also a source of her livelihood – she had bundles squirreled into bundles of valuables, big and small, collections of bottles and soda cans, and a large rag that probably served as a ‘chador’. She was yelling “ I am not a Kalli (thief), I picked all these!” all to deaf ears of officials as they scattered her possessions and callously disposed of them. They were looking for money or other more acceptable forms of valuables to document for their records. Yet, one of the other male beggars knew the value of what was being discarded. His hand crept slowly along the floor, and in a quick gesture he picked out her rag sheet that he immediately draped it around himself.
Many questions confront me now, in reflection, on what exactly happened there. I need to pose these questions to myself, and give form to the un-understood and un-explained of what transpired before me. How do people, such as Her, who do not beg, fall through cracks and get institutionalised at places like Beggar’s Homes? Beggary requires at least an act of soliciting, doesn’t it? Or are outwardly appearances sufficient reasons to custodialise people? Second, what is the definition of personal property and who defines this? owner or the outside world? Why did she keep repeating she is not a thief when the staff were getting rid of what they considered rubbish? Did she feel she had been brought to a prison? Then, there is the whole bit about empowerment, or in the case of destitutes, their lack of it. The beggars and the poorest of this country are our least empowered lot, not even introduced to the concept of questioning authority; they have no knowledge or even concept of individual fundamental rights, let alone insist on its guarantees. And, finally, there is the question of being ‘tagged’ as a beggar, even if a magistrate were to set her free. Computerised recording when combined with dangerous UID scheme will tag all entrants into such custodial institutions and with the associated stigma, become part of their permanent profiling. Beggary acts are even more stringent for ‘repeat offenders’ and such tagging can be the used to get rid of the unwanted of this society.
In the case of Her, even in her fortunate entry into a new and improved Bangalore Beggar’s Home, what were her chances that the system would really benefit her? Who else is it meant to benefit? Or is this merely a street cleansing exercise towards
(Based on Gowru Chinnapa’s visit to Beggar’s Home, December 2010)