CHENNAI: As the traffic near the Tidel Park signal on the IT Corridor increases, the middle-aged man summons a sad, weary face and glides past the vehicles waiting for the green signal. He knocks on the windows, and with his palms outstretched, he seeks alms. Not far behind are three girls, who, till a few moments ago, were standing on a kerb cracking jokes.
The middle-aged man’s name is Madan Singh, a member of the ‘begging committee’ from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. His is one of the many gangs doing a flourishing business in this rather ‘organised sector’. The girls are in his group — part of a 15-member strong crew that swoops down on the city this time of the year. There are innumerable such gangs, all parts of a swarm — the one that Madan Singh is part of has about 1,000 members. There are farmers, doll makers and other daily wage earners, who turn to begging a few months a year when the going gets tough. And it pays.
Madan earns about `200 as a farmhand back in Bhopal. Here in the metropolis, standing at traffic lights and other vantage points, wearing a dusty, dirty dhoti, he earns about `500 a day. “My family lives a comfortable life and that’s what is important to me,” says the middle-aged man, whose children study at a reputed school in Madhya Pradesh.
He has been in the ‘business’ for the past three years, but this is his first visit to Chennai - his previous ports of call included Delhi and Mumbai. They keep changing cities. The beggars don’t choose, Madan explains, it is the committee that divides them into smaller group and sends them to different cities depending on which part of the year they are available for work. In Chennai, for instance, April-May is the season.
The story is almost the same with everyone. “Begging helps boost our income,” says Kosala, reaching out to the commuters, as they cross her. She is part of an all-woman group of about 30 members that came here from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh. Back home, she is a daily wage labourer in a pickle factory and her husband is a farmer. “We couldn’t save a penny, given our meagre income. So we had to take to begging,” she reasons.
Though looked down upon, begging brings them higher income when compared to other vocations, says Sathish Kumar, the founder of NGO Chennai Social Service. This is why they refuse to give it up, he adds. For many, this is a second job, which brings in additional income. This extra money ensures that their family’s comfort is within their reach.
Bharadwaj’s is one such case. Hailing from Marwad in Maharashtra, the young man can be seen near Thiruvanmiyur market, selling dolls during the day. As it turns dark and the traffic decreases, the doll seller walks across the road to a signal. When the vehicles stop, he runs towards them, seeking alms, pointing to his missing left hand.
The shop closes around 9 pm, after which he takes position to do his ‘second job’ till late night, says Bharadwaj, who has been doing this for the past five years. “I do this because I need money to give my son a comfortable life,” he says. He doesn’t always beg, especially when his family from Marwad pays a visit during the holidays. “I don’t want to spoil my reputation in their presence. But that does not alter the facts. Begging is more profitable than selling dolls,” he says.
According to Virgil D Sami, executive director of NGO Arunodhaya, there are more migrant beggars in the city as compared to local beggars. They come from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi.
On the pedestrian path in front of Thiruvanmayur railway station, a woman aged around 60 years stands holding on to a blind man older than her. She is tall, lean and fair, so is he. She covers her head with her cotton saree to take cover from the scorching sun, while he wears a cap. As the signal turns red and the vehicles halt, she guides him through the labyrinth of parked cars and bikes, all the while gesturing to the commuters to look at the blind man. He opens his palms and raises it to their chest level. Both speak nothing to the motorists.
“We have a house at Velacherry, but how are we to meet our expenses? My husband is blind, and we are old, too,” she says, while dropping their collection into a yellow bag. She, Alamu, had come from Villupuram to Chennai a couple of years ago in search of a job. “We are saving for our granddaughter’s marriage. After that, we will stop begging and return to our native. Till then we have to stay here,” she adds. Her granddaughter stays with their relatives and the old couple sends her money.
Six years ago, in June 2010, the Chennai Corporation ordered a ban on begging. The civic body went into an overdrive to take beggars off the streets and place them in government care camps and with NGOs. It had a very limited success. “Police sent some beggars to us, but they run out of our home as they cannot resist drinking,” says an official from a noted organisation in Chennai.
There also exists a Tamil Nadu Prevention of Begging Act, 1945, making seeking alms illegal. The act reads, whoever is found begging shall be punishable, by either a fine of `50 or with an imprisonment up to a month on first conviction and with imprisonment up to six months from the next time onwards. The acts also gives liberty to police to arrest them even without a warrant. A government care camp at Melapakkam admits beggars convicted by judicial magistrates. During their stay, they are provided with vocational training. There are also a few NGOs that become home to the beggars and the homeless. As the authorities, including civic officials and the police and NGOs, work without coordination with one another, these groups move from one city to another. They even change locations within the city to avoid familiarity with the benefactors. All these are important steps to succeed in this lucrative trade.