‘Arrested' beggars are provided food, shelter, skill training and counselling at the Beggars' Colony
Ask Thomas (name changed), a resident of the Nirashritara Parihara Kendra (Beggars' Colony), how he first came to this government rehabilitation centre on Magadi Road and he will narrate his story in impeccable English.
“I once went to the church at Shivajinagar where I met an old classmate, whom I hadn't met in years. He asked me to wait and said he would come back so we could catch up,” he said.
“While I waited, some of these gentlemen came and asked me to get into a van. They did not manhandle me though.”
“I was dressed shabbily. So they mistook me for a beggar,” he said.
“I gave the authorities my residential address but they also needed a phone number,” he went on, showing no signs of anguish. “My wife just got a telephone and I do not have the number.”
And so, Thomas has been residing at Beggars' Colony for the past year and is awaiting his ‘release'.
The other side
The former superintendent of the colony Ramegowda has a different tale to tell. “This is the second time he has been admitted. He is an alcoholic. And they all have their own versions of the story,” he said. “Nobody admits that they were actually found begging. We do not want to keep anyone here by force.”There are 498 people living in the colony as on May 5.
As part of the initiative of the State government's Social Welfare Department, this centre was established to rehabilitate beggars and reintegrate them into society.
So, its staff routinely patrols the city and ‘arrests' beggars. Then, an attempt is made to contact their families.
Meanwhile, the new admissions are given a clean wash, a haircut and a uniform to put on.
Life on monitor
A day at the centre begins with tea and some snacks followed by yoga and exercises. They are served lunch, provided by ISKCON's Akshaya Patra Foundation, at a huge dining hall.
During the day, residents are trained in coir and mat making, book binding, tailoring and housekeeping. There is also a production house where they make mass consumption goods such as washing bars and phenyl.
A team from NIMHANS counsels patients on a fortnightly basis. “At least 60 per cent of them suffer from mental illnesses,” said Ramegowda.
The entire centre is monitored at the superintendent's office through a huge LCD screen that relays CCTV footage from the dining hall, dormitories and training centres. If this does not bring to mind the Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984, the march of the residents from their dormitories to the dining hall reminds one of Fritz Lang's 1931 film M.
According to Raja Naik, secretary, Central Relief Committee, the government is keen on making routine releases so that the centre can help more people. “We will assess the residents and send the fit ones back to society,” he said. “We will verify the family contacts and also get an undertaking from them at the time of release. Some placement agencies have come forward to offer employment to a few of them.”
He also explained their manner of ‘arrest'. “It is not difficult to identify a beggar on the road. Just by looking at the person's clothes, we can make out,” he said.
That brings us back to Thomas, and his tale.
“I hope I get out soon,” Thomas said with a smile.