CHENNAI: They peer through the windows of trains at stations. They play old songs, often full of pathos, to draw attention in subways. They brave the maddening traffic at signals to reach out to you. For residents, it is rather difficult to miss the beggars.
However, most beggars on the roads are not there by choice. Several factors ranging from abject poverty and family problems to failure in business or poor health lead them to begging.
While some beg for survival, there are others who take to begging as they consider it an easy option to earn money.
Former chairperson of the State Juvenile Justice Board Vidya Shankar said most beggars in Chennai came from areas such as Gummidipoondi and areas bordering Andhra Pradesh.
“Over the past few years more children are seen begging in residential colonies for school fees. The children carry bonafide certificates from schools but they don’t really attend any school. Children are being rented out for Rs.100 a day. What we need is a very strong police agenda to protect children,” she said.
The Census of India counts beggars as non-working persons. Rough estimates say that the amount involved in begging in the city could be around Rs.15 crore a year, note representatives of the non-governmental organisations.
Places of worship have been conventional spots chosen by many. Chinnasamy alias Joseph, a fisherman by profession, said he had to beg because he could not continue with his work owing to a major surgery on his knee.
Lalitha was forced to beg because her husband abandoned her. “I fell off a terrace when I was drying clothes and underwent a series of operations. I cannot do any kind of heavy work.”
Representatives of non-governmental organisations also point to an increase in the practice of hiring infants for begging at traffic signals. Of late, several visually challenged persons can also be spotted begging with a collection box at traffic signals.
Most often, the driver would park the vehicle near a busy traffic junction and send the visually challenged with an escort to beg at the signals even after it turns green.
A member of a blind orchestra standing at the Thirumangalam junction said they make nearly Rs.2,000 a day with six blind “collection agents”.
However, C. Govindakrishnan, founder of Nethrodaya an NGO working with visually impaired persons points to the scope for exploitation here. “Truck drivers exploit them for quick money,” he said.
Wrong side of law?
Beggars also find themselves on the wrong side of law. As per Section 144 of the Indian Railways Act, illegal hawking and begging are banned at railway stations. Begging is an offence under the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Begging Act, 1945.
Visually challenged beggars at railway stations said most of them took to begging by compulsion; eventually it became a matter of choice. Several beggars complain of harassment by the police, who often sought to chase them away or demand money or ’mamool’.
V. Kumar, who begs at the Egmore Railway Station, said he initially sold safety pins and scissors in suburban trains. But irregular income made him resort to begging. “On a good day, I can make up to Rs.200. Small children tend to make more money as they evoke greater sympathy,” he said.
Several NGOs are involved in rehabilitating the physically disabled, aged and the juvenile beggars. Paul Sunder Singh, director of Karunalaya, an NGO-based at Tondiarpet said providing beggars an opportunity for alternative livelihood through education and life skills rather than just money or food was imperative.
The Government Care Camp in Melpakkam near Poonamallee has 90 members even though it has a sanctioned strength of 950 members.
The beggars picked up by the police and convicted by the Judicial Magistrates are kept in the home. They soon return to their places and continue begging. But the government does not have statistics of or any mechanism to keep track of what the inmates do after their period of confinement.