CHENNAI: Five decades ago, the late DMK president M Karunanidhi during his second tenure as Chief Minister, launched the Beggars Rehabilitation Scheme on his 48th birthday and vowed to eliminate beggary in Tamil Nadu in five to seven years time, while also ordering the construction of six homes at important towns to rehabilitate leprosy-affected beggars in the first phase.
However, over a period, the scheme lost its momentum and now the number of beggars in the State have increased. With Chief Minister MK Stalin now reviewing the functioning of all departments on a day to day basis ahead of the budget session and initiating more impetus to developmental schemes as well as social reform initiatives, several activists express hope that Stalin would pay special attention to the rehabilitation of beggars, a cause close to his father’s heart.
Karunanidhi first spoke about the issues of beggars in his film Parasakthi in 1952, wherein he stressed on their empowerment. When he became the CM, he put his words into action. “Forget this is my birthday. It is the day of beggars’ rehabilitation,” said Karunanidhi on his 48th birthday on June 3, 1971. On that day, he also literally ‘begged’ for funds for the scheme from shop keepers near his residence, and thus collected Rs 3,000. “Seeking alms is not an insult to the person who is begging. But, it is indeed an insult to the country and the society, which made him a beggar,” he had said.
The former chief minister had insisted on all those who visited him on his birthday to donate Rs 10 to the beggars rehabilitation scheme. During that birthday celebration function in 1971, then HR and CE Minister M Kannappan handed over a cheque for Rs 1.24 lakh on behalf of temples and charitable endowments to the scheme. Actor MG Ramachandran, who was with the DMK then, also donated Rs 10,000.
At a function held at the Centenary building of University of Madras on June 3, 1971, the Beggars Rehabilitation Fundraising Scheme was launched by Karunanidhi in the presence of the then Governor KK Shah. Karunanidhi also sold the first lottery ticket for raising funds for the scheme to the Governor. The then Harijan Welfare Minister Sathiyavani Muthu said there were around 60,000 beggars in Tamil Nadu and of them, 8,000 were leprosy-afflicted persons.
P Naveen Kumar, founder-president of Atchayam Trust and National Youth Awardee in 2018 for rehabilitation of beggars, shared his views and key steps to be taken by the government to rehabilitate beggars. “First of all, the government has to define who is a beggar in the prevailing social conditions. Secondly, the government has to create a separate department for eliminating beggary as it is the need of the hour since the number of beggars are growing everyday. Thirdly, the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Begging Act should be enforced vigorously with some amendments to it,” he said.
Explaining his points, Kumar said as per the law, the beggars arrested are being produced before the district magistrate and then sent to a rehabilitation home. This cumbersome procedure indirectly threatens the persons involved in beggary. Instead, district level committees comprising experts from various fields should be constituted to deal with the issue. The beggars taken into custody from various places should be produced before this committee and it would decide what kind of remedy should be given to the individual depending on their situation — like whether they need counselling or a job or admission to a rehabilitation home, he added.
“In our experience, we have come across 18 kinds of beggars — those who beg due to extreme poverty, those who have been left uncared for by their children, mentally disturbed, alcoholics who have no money to drink, elderly who are unable to work, etc. The government should establish rehabilitation homes in every district and these homes should be shelters and not prison-like facilities. It should provide a comfortable life to the beggars and help them return to normal life by offering employment opportunities. The government should also ensure that children look after their parents,” Naveen concluded.