A few days ago, I visited the 158-acre Beggars’ Rehabilitation Colony off Magadi Road, at the intersection of Ring Road, along with officials of the Social Welfare Department (SWD) (which owns the facility) and BDA (to whom the land is now being transferred, at the direction of the Chief Minister). BDA is keen to develop the area, quite nicely located at the junction of the Outer Ring Road and Magadi Road, into a township, and also to ensure some public good outcomes using a portion of the land (perhaps, for a hospital, a man-made lake, a bus terminal for BMTC, and so on). The site is a sprawling one, fairly wooded and with only gravel paths to access most of it.
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It was identified in 1944, by the colonial administration as a place suitable for rehabilitating beggars. Considering how far away from the city it must have seemed back then, one can only imagine that even 65 years ago, the stated and actual objectives were quite different. As now, the prevailing view may well have been a mixture of muddled concern for the beggars, and mindless execution of an evidently flawed policy. Let me explain.
The first thing that strikes you is that it’s a phenomenally well-located property (like many Bangaloreans, I’ve become hard-wired to thinking of places in terms of their usefulness for one thing or another). And the second thing that strikes you is that 158 acres is surely an enormous amount of land to house around 800 beggars in fairly modest conditions (there are a few dormitories and medical facilities, plus the usual staff quarters, but otherwise not many structures). But these are the not the most striking things.
That honour is reserved for this fact: the people there are not beggars! Now, I should explain that according to the SWD and the police they’re certainly deserving of that label. Virtually all of them are destitute, and all of them have been formally charged with begging by the police before being brought to this facility. Still, I contend, they’re not beggars.
How do I know? Because, on any given day, at 200+ traffic signals in the city, one can find a veritable army of real beggars, carrying on with very little fear of being arrested or re-housed in this Garden of Eden outside the city. Indeed, I should add that for a real beggar, such relocation would probably not be such a bad thing. Verdant surroundings, relatively clean air, free food and bed, even some retraining for jobs – I imagine that a lot of poor people wouldn’t mind a genuine shot at these things.
Now let me tell you who lives in the colony (they’re also traced and brought back, if they ever ‘run away’ before their three year term is up.) The great majority of the people there are women, almost half, judging from my quick observation, are old people (when I asked, I was told that the oldest person is 80+), and about 40 per cent of them are mentally unstable. Once you put those three observations together, a pretty clear picture emerges – this is not a rehabilitation colony for beggars. Instead, this is a shelter for old, and often mentally unstable people who have been abandoned by their families, or have simply become adrift in some way.
And unlike real beggars, they have been arrested by the police for the simple reason that they really cannot live by themselves, even on the streets. Also unlike real beggars, who often have families including small children, they really are alone in the world. And so they’re shipped off to this colony, the only facility where they can find any kind of refuge.
Why don’t we put these people in old age homes, I asked one of the officials accompanying me? Clearly, that’s their true condition – they’re old and may not need anything more than the company of other old people, also without families. Why do we instead label them beggars (I imagine that for some people, this is quite a blow by itself, besides being housed with mentally unstable companions in a dorm), and cast them into this dysfunctional mess? And how many other such places does the department maintain, anyway?
Later that afternoon, one of my senior colleagues, a former bureaucrat, told me that I hadn’t even got to see the full horror of this situation. "Once you hear about the old age homes, you might conclude they’re better off where they are," he cautioned me.
I hope not. BDA will soon convert this area into a nice little township, and the SWD will move these ‘beggars’ into another facility for non-beggars, all the while insisting that the police have rounded them up as genuine mendicants. It makes you wonder who is institutionalised – these people with their feeble minds who only know the immediate world around them in which they’re labeled and cared for, or the society that finds this arrangement convenient and somehow better than the alternatives.
I didn’t directly speak with any of them. When one of the officials suggested it, I declined; something inside me seemed to revolt at the idea of interacting with them, as though they were fit objects for my curiosity. They have their lives, and I must leave them to it in dignity, I decided instead. Now, I’m not so sure. Perhaps they’ve had enough of being left alone, and thought no more of. Perhaps they’re tired of the care they receive, even with all good intentions, from the wrong department. I hope I can visit the place again. ⊕