Pangs of conscience

Role of media

The media generally reflects the concerns of the articulate sections of society, who are presumed to be the ‘target audience’ and about whom the advertisers are also interested. The revenue from advertising does matter, as otherwise, the media cannot sustain itself. However, there are complaints that the media has become so obsessed with the chattering classes that, of late, it has no time or space for those living on the margins of society.

Still, there are occasions when those working in the media suddenly suffer the ‘pangs of conscience’ which drive them to go after ‘human interest stories’ which, irrespective of class, have universal appeal. The stories emanating from the beggars’ colony in Bangalore which dominated the media for almost a fortnight, served to highlight the virtues of good old journalism, which had become a blurred memory in these days of crass commercialisation.

It took four days of sustained coverage by this newspaper on the appalling living conditions in the beggars’ colony in Bangalore before the authorities, including chief minister B S Yeddyurappa, woke up to take remedial measures to bring some relief to the unfortunate inmates of the colony.

It was the death of 13 persons on a single day on Independence Day at the colony which shook everyone out of inertia. From eye-witness accounts of the sub-human existence that the inmates were forced to live in thanks to the apathetic attitude of the officials, it came as no surprise that the colony had turned into a macabre chamber of death and disease.

The revelation that over 120 persons had died in August alone as a result of unhygienic food and living environs and lack of timely medical help, should have alerted those in charge of the beggars’ colony to take quick remedial measures. But all that they did was to bury the bodies quietly even without a post mortem as if it was all normal and those living on the edge of society had no right to live.

Perhaps more people would have died unheard and those who survived would have continued to live in squalor, but for the media intervention. After Yeddyurappa and other leaders made a beeline to the colony, the situation has improved with the whole place being disinfected, the inmates being given new clothing and mattresses and better food. The chief minister has promised to post more doctors and para-medical personnel to the colony. There is also talk of outsourcing the maintenance of cleanliness and preparation of ‘nutritious’ food for the inmates.

It was the result of the vision of the then ruler of Mysore, Sri Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, that “the destitutes’ rehabilitation centre” came up in Bangalore in 1944. The maharaja provided more than 300 acres for the centre, with adequate provision for taking care of the destitutes and those who had run away from home for various reasons.

When D Devaraj Urs was the chief minister of the state, the Karnataka Prohibition of Beggary Act, 1975, was passed with the intent to set up shelters at 14 places in the state to temporarily rehabilitate the beggars, give them some vocational training for a year and then release them to lead dignified lives. Begging was made an offence, giving police officers the power to arrest them.

Iconic symbols

The country has made enormous economic progress in the last two decades and cities like Bangalore are held up as iconic symbols of India’s rise to the status of a ‘super power.’ But the disparities in income generation and acquisition of wealth are equally stark. It is a matter of embarrassment for the well-to-do that when they are shopping to their hearts’ content at the glittering malls which are coming up by the dozens, there are still beggars on the streets with haggard, malnourished looks and nothing more than torn clothes on their emaciated bodies.

The officials of the social welfare department and the police routinely round up these beggars from railway stations, bus stands and street corners and dump them in the beggars’ colony so that they are out of sight and out of mind and don’t continuously prick our collective conscience and also spoil the ‘image’ of the city.

But there is no getting away from poverty and destitution forced by social and economic conditions and it is the society’s duty to care for them in a humane manner. For a long time now, the citizens have been doing their bit by contributing 3 per cent of their property tax as beggary cess.

Bangalore alone contributes around Rs 24 crore annually towards beggary cess and if the funds are properly utilised, it should be more than adequate to manage the 14 beggar homes across the state. But, unfortunately, the government does not spend even a quarter of that amount for the welfare of beggars and the money is ‘misutilised’ for other purposes.

The government should ensure that the BBMP promptly hands over the cess collected for the welfare of beggars’ homes and adequate staff is posted there to give them useful vocational training so that when the beggars come out, they have some means to stand on their own feet.

As regards the government’s proposal to utilise about 160 acres of the beggars’ colony for commercial purposes, there should be no objection as long as it is done transparently for a genuine purpose and the land is transferred only after the construction of better accommodation for the beggars.

Once the media glare is removed, the officials would have a tendency to go back to their old ways and that’s where the media has a role to ensure that it doesn’t happen.

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