By Shubhra Kukreti:
Have you ever watched the movie Pushpak? One of the most hilarious scenes of the movie is when an unemployed Kamal Haasan comes across a visibly poor, haggard looking beggar sitting with a ‘katora’ on the road. Thinking that no matter how tough the situation he is in, he is still richer than the beggar, Haasan gladly flaunts the single penny he is left with. Poor Haasan, he has to eat crow when the beggar in response to his gesture, takes out first the note tucked in his pants, rolls his sleeves for another two notes, a few more notes come out of his pocket, and voila, under his rag is hidden the money bin of Uncle Scrooge! Why does he beg then? This movie was released way back in 1987 and appears to be an avant gardist to this phenomenon of ‘professional begging ‘. Why should anyone who has ample amount of money to keep his body and soul together make a living by begging? Are not beggars looked down upon? Aren’t they shooed away by every third person on the street? And above everything else, doesn’t every human being deserve to treat himself with proper self-respect? We need to analyse this problem with economic tools, along with some sociological and psychological aspects.
All of us would agree that beggars are a big liability to a nation. They do not contribute to the economy. Moreover, they act as a blot on humanity, portraying our failure in creating an atmosphere where each and everyone gets an opportunity to grow, refine and polish their human substance. One obvious reason behind this evil is illiteracy, poverty and unemployment but at the same time the other major reason is that begging has become quite a paying profession. The beggar gangs are extremely organized and execute their work like a business. Theirs too is a hierarchic structure. It’s usually the lower employees who go to the ‘workplace’ and share the ‘working hours’. Sadly in this business, there is more to what meets the eyes. It is linked to human trafficking. Young children are forced into this business. Often, the beggars are deliberately maimed by their gang leaders so that they do not go unnoticed and garner more sympathy.
Now, the problem, especially in our country, is that the religious texts preach that giving alms is a sure shot way to heaven. We are told that it is our moral duty to help the weak, the hungry and the people who are suffering. But little do we realise that by dispensing alms as charity, we do not help them. We may feel better after this moral service, but we are actually weakening their inner fabric which constitutes their dignity. At the same time, there are the ‘hale and hearty’ ones who on seeing the trade of begging flourishing and beggars making easy money, enter this lucrative trade. Sloth, which is listed as one of the seven deadly sins in Christian moral tradition, drives them to stoop so low and robs them off their self worth. I once happened to talk to a ‘hatta-katta’ beggar at Nehru Place who harped that it was so easy to make money this way; he did not feel embarrassed by his work as nobody really knew what he did. At the end of the day, as he told me, he drove back to his village near Faridabad and spent the rest of the evening merrily. “I am a beggar in the morning, I am a King at night.” suits him the best. So, it was not really a surprise to find out that a beggar on the streets of Calcutta reportedly has a bank account and another apparently owns a flat. In fact, in June 2007, 320 beggars were arrested under the Karnataka Beggary Prohibition Act, 1975. But, barely hours after the beggars were arrested; their lawyers came and got them freed!
Begging is already an illegal act in India, yet it employs about 7.3 lakh men and women (and child labours) with revenue of Rs 180 crore (as per 2001 census). Implementing laws is pointless if we do not realise that as the privileged ones, our help should be directed towards making them stand on their own feet rather than using them to clean our conscience. The NGOs can come to the forefront and offer them means to earn their livelihood in a respectful way. The handicapped people can always be employed in the small scale cottage industries. If they are really incapable to feed themselves, then it clearly becomes the responsibility of the state to provide them social security. As Martin Luther King Jr. puts it, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”