So who cares for such people, after all? We must take heart that some of our Members of Parliament are reacting to such distressing aspects of society

If you are not well dressed, appear indigent or are old, what are the chances that you would get a passer-by to help if you collapsed on the road margins of bustling Chennai? Pretty low, one would think.

An old man with nothing to indicate material prosperity lay semi-conscious on United India Colony's second cross street in Kodambakkam last week, occasionally moving a limb, and clearly ill. Some people had thrown a few bread slices and other food items, and they lay around the supine figure, untouched. He stared blankly and weakly raised his hand to gesture in response to questions.

Many people scurrying to work on the weekday morning failed to even notice him, while others cast a sideways glance as they hurried on. This writer, who was at the spot, tried calling the helpline for older adults, 1253, which was started eight years ago in association with the police. No one answered. It was left to a journalist colleague to rustle up some support through HelpAge India, and social worker Santosh Kumar from the agency (see picture) arranged to shift the man to Government Royapettah Hospital. With some luck, the man will find a refuge somewhere.

Not long ago, newspaper reports said a 35-year old man who had collapsed on the road in Nandanam Extension got no help because everyone thought he was under the influence of liquor. He did not survive. It could be argued that he was a victim of the social prejudice that has set in as TASMAC liquor shops proliferate, and render sprawled and seemingly lifeless men on road margins a perfectly normal urban spectacle. The Tamil Nadu government achieved a liquor sales turnover of over Rs. 18,000 crore in 2011-12, but such prosperous revenue has many hidden costs.

In the case of the Kodambakkam man, some watchmen in the neighbourhood speculated that he had perhaps come with a group of beggars who periodically gather to seek alms from visitors to a large church that is just across the road. If that is true, no one at the church appears to have noticed what had happened.

So who cares for such people, after all? We must take heart that some of our Members of Parliament are reacting to such distressing aspects of society. They have been asking questions in the Rajya Sabha about plans to ban begging and rehabilitate beggars, to which the Centre has helpfully pointed out that there is no plan to ban begging, but there are many schemes that it supervises to help older adults, the disabled, children and people addicted to alcohol. Also, no less than 20 States and two Union Territories have enacted “anti-beggary” legislations. For some reason, there are far fewer questions asked in the Lok Sabha, though.

Now, for a contrast. On a Thursday morning earlier this month, a senior surgeon in the city witnessed something heart warming. As he was driving to hospital to see patients, Dr. S.M. Chandramohan saw a massive black Porsche Cayenne S emerging from one of those nice houses near a star hotel on Dr. Radhakrishnan Road. “As an admirer of great machines, I could not help slowing down my own car, just to be behind that beautiful SUV, to watch it glide along the not-too-busy road,” he says. But just after it turned into TTK Road, the Porsche driver braked hard, switched on the blinkers and got down. The doctor was apprehensive that something untoward had happened, and got ready to help. In a few seconds, though, the mystery was revealed. “I saw the driver, who was in his thirties, crossing the road in front of my car. He was carrying a white puppy, which could not have been more than two weeks old. He carried it carefully and left it in one of the buildings on the side, out of harm's way.” The obvious question that many would ask is this: how many would care for a forlorn animal on the road, when they are at the wheel of an SUV that has a sticker price of between Rs. 75 lakhs and Rs. 1.5 crore, that too in a city that has no patience even for traffic signals?

The corollary to that question would be: should we blame the dulling effect of watching inebriated men staggering out of TASMAC shops and collapsing on the roads for our general insensitivity to people in distress? Or are we just plain insensitive?

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