The Kannada film song Ullasada Hoo Male streaming in from the newly installed music system in one of the men’s dormitories acts as a momentary distraction from the stories that are told by inmates at the Beggars’ Colony in Bangalore.
The stories are not pleasant.
Click here To view a slideshow on the social welfare facility for beggars in Bangalore
Only about 740 out of 2,500 inmates remain at this centre on Magadi Road in Bangalore after 18 people died over two days last week. The deaths were initially dismissed as a coincidence, but there was panic when more people began to take ill in the coming days. The number of deaths had reached 27 by Wednesday. Several people fled in fear.
“Around 23 people died at the centre even before they could receive any medical aid and four passed away after hospitalization,” says G. Hari Murthy, a medical officer in the colony. He adds that there “might be a chance” that the deaths occurred due to gastro-enteritis. The autopsy report is awaited.
This brought back into the news this rehabilitation centre, formed in 1944 with the aim of bringing the city’s beggars into the mainstream by providing them with vocational training. The colony was a vision of the then Mysore scion, Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar. Over the years, decay set in.
Visitors to the centre last week recall terrible living conditions and poor hygiene, saying that the facility meant for around 900 people housed nearly three times the number, mostly men.
The news of the sudden deaths on 18 August had caused such panic that several inmates just fled. More than a thousand people have left Beggars’ Colony since and most of those who remain are either disabled or unwell.
“You can somehow live and feed yourself. But nobody wants to die,” says one of the inmates, R. Dorai.
A security worker, who did not want to be identified, says that when the inmates walked out, the authorities turned a blind eye. “Nobody stopped them, which was better in a way than being here.”
M. Ramaiah, who took over as secretary of the Central Relief Committee on the weekend after the deaths, says the officers in charge are being questioned.
Many inmates say they were picked up off the streets after the social welfare department of the state government launched a Beggary Eradication Campaign in February and rounded up people across the city.
“We were dumped in this place, and nobody looked back to see what will happen to us,” claims Raju (he uses one name), adding that he was not begging on the streets but had a job at a restaurant.
Dorai, like Raju, says he was picked up forcibly when he was drinking tea near the Shivaji Nagar Bus Terminus. “I worked as a painter. I have a wife and three children. I want to earn to educate them, but I have been stuck here for the past month. They (family) probably think I am dead,” he says.
Ramaiah refutes the charges: “Why would they pick up people randomly from the streets? I can say from experience that most beggars, when asked, will not accept they were begging. They know it’s against the law.”
After the local press reported the deaths and chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa visited the colony, the social welfare department swung into action, cleaning up and presenting a more positive picture. The music system is a new addition, so is the television set in Dorai’s dormitory. After a breakfast of porridge, the inmates are lined up in a hall so they can watch an hour of Doordarshan. Cosmetic changes that may not make much difference to the serious issues faced by Beggars’ Colony.