Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Great Indian Begging Bowl

Population of brahmins is about to decrease drastically and eventually become extinct within the next one to two generations. Chief ministers of flood affected states and the prime minister are soon going to serve jail sentences. Political parties will have to go underground and work like underworld as they will be tagged as unlawful entities. Charitable organizations are on the verge of being banned. Places of worship will be sealed down by law enforcers. Jails will be filled with with beggars, sadhus, trans-genders, and hawkers. And they will be in company of the top bosses of advertising firms and firms whose advertisements were put on the hoardings. All this and more, thanks to Begging Prohibition Act.

With March 22, 2010, the Begging Eradication Month comes to an end in Bangalore. It was successful and one can see the signs of its success on the street. No sight of malfunctioning human bodies can be found asking for alms. No sight of non-malfunctioning human bodies (read trans-genders) can be found asking (read extorting) for alms either. Hawkers too vanished from the footpath. Indeed Bangalore has become a better place to live. Now, the townsmen can save some small change which found its way to beggar bowls and then in turn to police pockets. What a relief during inflation!

Oh, my dear townsmen, don't forget to invest the savings as such, however meager it be, in Ram Bharose Mutual Fund's freshly launched Golden Alms plan. Multiply your savings and ensure all future bribes to the traffic police.

Bowl Economics: Begging is an illegal business in India. Yet, it employs about 7.3 lakh men and women (and child labors) with revenue of Rs 180 crore (per 2001 census). With Indian economy shinning, number of employees and revenue both might have sky rocketed now.

Attack on Your Culture: Alms seekers had a place in Indian culture for time immemorial. Indian religions, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and many more, had advocated seeking alms as a means of livelihood for seekers of enlightenment. Receiving and donating alms amounts to "punya' to both the benefactor as well as the seeker. It is a spiritual process, it satisfies the hunger of the beggar and the spiritual need to donate of the donor, almost instantaneously. During the sacred thread ceremony (kind of baptism), the brahmin boy has to beg first from his mother and then from relatives and friends. This symbolization reflects the deep association of begging and Hinduism. With begging being interwoven in South East Asian cultures, banning it would mean that many of the spiritual and cultural elements are considered harmful to the society. It would be an attack on the culture. And you, the savior of the age-old culture, the believer of ancient practices, won't you come up against such heretic laws banning begging? It is certainly anti-religious.

Beggars in Disguise: Wikipedia says; “Begging (or panhandling) is to request a donation in a supplicating manner.” I believe, all including the chair holders (they call it seat in parliament) would agree with this definition. So, legally speaking, beggars request for donation, usually monitory, to keep their lives going as they cannot support themselves on their own. We can break down the definition of begging in the following manner: 
1. Its a humble request.
2. Ideally, someone resorts to begging on being incapable of supporting self, to make the ends meet.
3. The donor gets nothing material in return for the alms.
4. Ideally, the act of donation is voluntary.

Based on the above definition, who else would fit the bill for a beggar? The umpteen charitable organizations which coax us for grants with grief stricken faces on life size posters (smiley's don't fetch nothing). The wealthy and middle-class temples, churches, mosques, gurdwaras that gladly accept our money. Those who seek donations to Chief Ministers Flood Relief Fund. Those who seek donations to Prime Minister's Drought Relief Fund. The political parties which thrive on the juice of donation from corporates and at sometimes, commoners. Doesn't all of them qualify for being tagged as beggars? After all they fulfill all the 4 criteria mentioned above at least on paper if not in practice. However, political parties are different on two accounts. Firstly, donations made by the corporates to the political entities are like stock future to be redeemed at a later date in the form of business from government thus violating rule #3 and secondly, the requests for donation are not humble in nature, overriding rule #1.

In fact, Chief Minister of Karnataka took to the streets with begging bowl in hand to collect donations for flood relief. It was October 2009 when North Karnataka was drowned by river Krishna. He turned out to be very professional in this job, collecting hundreds of crores.

All the above characters fit the definition of a beggar perfectly even though they are not covered by the law. There is another kind of creature who do not resemble beggar by any logic and yet is categorized as beggar by the law. They are hawkers. I have no idea how hawkers qualify as beggars. Possibly, not being rich enough to afford a shop is their crime. They advertise and sell their products on the streets. Possibly, their shouts distract the drivers and cause accidents. If that be the case, then the corporates selling soaps to sex should be booked under the same law. Aren't the humongous posters and hoardings with semi-nude bodies more distracting than hawks of the hawkers?

A Form of Social Security: In a country where social security is unheard of, begging offers a primitive form it. Money moves from the "haves" to "have nots" straight without the intervention of state. When the state cannot provide food and shelter, it has no right to stop its citizen from asking for alms. It is like saying "Well, I cannot save you from drowning but you should not shout for help as it disturbs peace." What a man is suppose to do who has nobody to care for, no money to buy food, and now no right to cry for help? 

Q. What will be the implications of Begging Prohibition Act being enforced in letter and in spirit?
A. Refer to first paragraph.

My View on Begging: You might have been taken to think that I'll be making generous donations to whomsoever I meet on the street. Well, you are dead wrong. I do not oblige to shell out a even a dime regardless of the patheticity of the almsman. Why so harsh? Because I believe that a man is responsible for his own conditions and there is no room for pity. It is his responsibility to keep the unknown risks in mind that can ruin his life. It is he who choose to live life as beggar and make not enough efforts to come out of this misery. I cannot have any respect or even pity for such a man, can you?

Then, I should be in favor of this Begging Prohibition Act, you would ask. But I am not. Because I believe that it is a man's biological responsibility to do whatever needed, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, clean or dirty, to protect his life, to feed his body. One's life is of supreme importance and this responsibility comes much ahead of the former. Everything is justified in order to the save the body from destroying, to propagate the genes.

Now, these are contradictory views, ain't it? Yes, they are for sure. But, thats why I call it "Perception of an Oxymoron."

PS: By the time I finished this article, trans-genders have already started showing up on the streets as the first colonizers. Others will follow soon.

Related Article: An interesting article was published in Deccan Herald on April 06, 2010. Colin Todhunter explains how Delhi wants to eliminate its street dwellers before the Commonwealth Games in late 2010 just as the bride-to-be wants to get rid of pimples on its cheeks. He describes how the poor is considered nuisance in the city and a roadblock to progress  in mineral-rich hills.

Link: Out of sight is not actually out of mind By Colin Todhunter
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  1. Harmanjit wrote an interesting post describing the psyche of donors. Here is it, http://harmanjit.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-giving-alms.html


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