In August of 2010, Bangalore witnessed the tragic death of over 40 inmates at the ?Beggar?s Home? on Magadi Road. The home was overcrowded with an estimated 2500 inmates squeezed into infrastructure that was meant to accommodate about 500 people. Reports indicate that contaminated food served (ironically) on Independence Day, triggered the incident. Five months later and the Beggar?s Home has been sanitised. The number of inmates is somewhere in the vicinity of 300. The walls are freshly painted, the floors look clean but there still remains a vacant stare in the eyes of the inmates.
The incident in August turned the spotlight onto the issue of how the state is criminalising poverty. The Karnataka Prohibition Of Beggary Act, 1975 makes begging a crime. What?s written between the lines of the act is that poverty is a crime, particularly if you are in state of absolute poverty. The sentence for the crime of poverty is custodialisation (read as jail sentence). There is a process laid out in the law to make the arrest and pass sentence. In actual practice the process is followed superficially. Most inmates can?t defend themselves either because they can?t speak the language or do not understand what is happening to them. For example, there are innumerable cases of people having been picked for ?looking poor?.
Inmates that the journalist met and spoke to come not only from parts of rural Karnataka but also from areas such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odissa, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. There is a common thread of destitution and poverty in their journey lines. It?s not laziness that they are being punished for, it?s their poverty. Many of these inmates are mentally challenged and are being pushed over the brink by the process of custodialisation and being jailed like a criminal. What they need is a facilitative health care program and not a jail sentence.
There is an urgent need to stop incarcerating people only because they are poor and in a state of destitution. Proscriptive Laws that criminalise poverty need to be replaced by voluntary and rehabilitative policies that empower people out of poverty. We need to look deeper at complex root causes such as inequitable economic models and historical oppression through the caste system.
If we breed poverty, we have to deal with ? not hide it in a jail cell. The aesthetic sensibilities of ?shining India? can not come at the cost of somebody else?s right to freedom and dignity.
This photo essay is shot on the streets of Bangalore and during two visits to the Beggar?s Home in Decemeber 2010 and January 2011.
Please note: There are no portraits in this essay. The reasoning is that since these people are already being traumatized by society and have no particular identity, wrongly giving them an identity would harm their dignity and go against the principles of the project at this point in time.
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