|The High Court asks the Madurai Police to "strictly implement" measures to prevent begging on the city's streets.|
Seeking alms on the roads of Madurai city.
ON March 26, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court directed the Commissioner of Police, Madurai, to "strictly implement the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Begging Act of 1945" without waiting for further notifications from the State government.
The order was passed while disposing of a writ petition filed under Article 226 of the Constitution by a city advocate, D. Muruganantham, seeking this direction. What followed was a series of activities aimed not only at eliminating begging but also at identifying and rehabilitating people who have been forced to live on the sidelines - without food, shelter and care.
As police and other officials tried to identify and classify those seeking alms, civil society attempted to find an answer to questions such as "Can begging be treated as a crime?", "Can it be eradicated by enforcement of the law alone?", "Is it a necessary evil?", and "Are we not forcing more and more people to the fringes of existence by adopting increasingly exclusive policies?"
But the most important concern was about the relevance of a law passed during British rule,at a time when courts are asserting the individual's right to live with dignity and right to basic necessities of life.
The answers to some of these questions could be found among those uprooted from their habitations by a system that wants only the able-bodied to enjoy the fruits of civilisation - a system that adds new groups to marginalised populations. A predominantly rural southern Tamil Nadu is dependent on agriculture for sustenance. Failure of successive monsoons, the delay in restoring the original level of the Mullaperiyar dam, depleting groundwater table, and urbanisation have made agriculture unviable.
Migration to industrial centres such as Tirupur and Erode is common in Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts. Those who cannot move out come to Madurai in search of employment. The absence of big industries - Madurai's industries are clusters of small units that fight for survival - is another reason for the lack of employment opportunities.
In the absence of any means to earn a livelihood, people from agrarian families in rural areas take to begging.
It should be said to the credit of the city police that the drive against beggars was carried out with a humane touch. Police Commissioner A. Subramanian deputed women police personnel to undertake a `socio-economic survey' before enforcing the provisions of the 1945 Act. The survey categorised the people on the streets as able-bodied, mentally unstable and those causing nuisance.
It identified people who exploited the gullible. There was also a small group that took to seeking alms as a means to lead luxurious lives. A person detained in the drive begged to be released as there was nobody to collect the interest on the money he had lent to some people; there were those who operated savings bank accounts; and there was a woman who possessed a mobile phone.
The makeshift tents of migrants from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka on the Madurai Corporation grounds.
After identifying about 320 people, the next phase, of segregation, took place. Those not creating nuisance were let out on bail. Some were fined Rs.50 each. Those who were sound mentally and physically were arrested and sent to the Government Rehabilitation Home at Melappakkam in Chennai. The mentally unstable ones were left untouched. A few destitutes were handed over to the Mother Teresa Home.
Before the court order, these people could be seen near places of worship and at bus stands, at the railway station and on busy roads. Their absence is conspicuous now. Many of them have migrated to nearby places such as Palani, Tiruchendur and Kodaikanal.
The exercise put the district administration and the police on a proactive mode. Says Subramanian: "Our objective is to make this ancient city free of begging. All our energies will be channelled towards rehabilitating these unfortunate people. If our plan works, Madurai can emerge as a model in containing begging."
The plan formulated by the police, along with District Collector S.S. Jawahar, is to house the alms-seekers in unused Corporation buildings. Arrangements have already been made to provide them medical care, clothes and basic amenities. But there is no arrangement for the supply of food. The district administration plans to form self-help groups of destitute people and orphans in order to link them to existing rehabilitation schemes.
Although there was no physical resistance to the drive, it brought both relief and concern. Relief because Madurai can now claim to be a `tourist-friendly' destination in the absence of pestering beggars and it will mean an end to the cruel exploitation of women and children. The concern is over whether it will be possible to eradicate begging by enforcing a piece of legislation.
Henri Tiphagne, executive director, People's Watch-Tamil Nadu, a Madurai-based human rights organisation, questions the implementation of the "archaic law". "How will it match with today's concept of right to life?" he asked. In the 1987 case Prabhakaran Nair vs State of Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court held that the right to shelter is a Fundamental Right guaranteed under Article 21. In Olga Tellis vs Union of India (1986), Chief Justice Y.V. Chandrachud observed that "the right to life includes the right to livelihood.... If the right to livelihood is not treated as a part of the constitutional right to life, the easiest way of depriving a person of his right to life would be to deprive him of his means of livelihood to the point of abrogation."
"Begging is a social issue, and we should not criminalise poverty," Henri says. He is against the concept of detention homes as they do not allow people to live as dignified citizens. Any rehabilitation effort should restore the dignity of the individual. People take to begging as an extreme step to keep themselves alive. The policies now pursued vigorously are bound to marginalise more and more people from mainstream society and they will have no other option other than to settle down in urban centres and seek alms, according to Henri. He says that all poverty alleviation programmes should make these people, who have been displaced from their moorings, the main beneficiaries.
Madurai, owing to its geographical location, has become a dumping yard of people not wanted in their homes. Mentally deranged persons and the old and the infirm are left to fend for themselves on the city's streets. Of course, a group of exploiters exists along with genuine seekers of alms. This group goes to the extent of "hiring" children from pavement dwellers for begging.
Runaway children from villages are easy prey. These children get so attached to the exploiter that it is difficult to restore them to their biological parents, says S. James, founder of Nanban, a centre for street and working children. This non-governmental organisation has rescued over 500 child-beggars in the past 17 years in Madurai city alone. As they grow up, these children often come into contact with criminal gangs.