Union Minister for Social Justice Thawar Chand Gehlot has informed the Lok Sabha that Assam has the highest number of beggars in the Northeast and the fourth highest in the country as a whole. This is an alarming statistic. What is worse is that most of the beggars in the State are women, forced as they are to work both at home and go begging to support their families. This reflection of the State’s social scerio is a clear pointer to the fact that despite the grandiose policies said to be in place for the poor, the downtrodden, and the destitute, nothing much as happened on the ground. Out of the 4.13 lakh beggars in the country, Assam is home to 22,116 such helpless and hapless people – mostly homeless people with none to bank on for a dignified life worth living while the government seems to prefer to look the other way even as the reality is there for it to see on pavements, in railway and bus stations, and near temples. For instance, near Shukreswar Temple in Guwahati, one can see homeless people in utter destitution frantically asking for money from passers-by as they jostle for some means of survival in a world that has neither time nor concern for them. It is a cruel world, however, that they must negotiate. Else suicide is the only option.
The minister was quoting figures from the 2011 census. It is seven years now and no one knows how today these figures look like. But given that there is a lack of tangible government policy to deal with the problem and give the destitutes a life of dignity – which the minister has himself admitted – there is no reason to believe that the figures have come down. As an activist told this newspaper on Tuesday, the problem of beggary and destitution is “not that severe in bigger States like Uttar Pradesh” because “the State governments concerned have erected some shelters in all districts for beggars and homeless people to stay”. But the duty of a government does not end there because it has to also provide education to their children so that the latter do not end up as beggars again and so that the fester of their destitution is not perpetuated endlessly, as the activist has rightly remarked. How many shelters has the Assam government built to shelter homeless people? What is its policy to stem the rot? If it has any, how is it being implemented? These are questions that a pro-poor and progressive government that the Sarbanda Sonowal government claims it to be, would do well to answer. Its answer will inform us all of its intent to eradicate the bane of beggary and destitution if it has any. We are talking of a democratically elected government that must be seen in democratic action – action for the people, of whom the vast crowd of beggars also forms an indispensable part as these unfortute lot are human beings after all who must be elevated to a rung of decent living in a democracy if we are a functioning democracy at all. Our approach to destitution will reflect our character when it comes to our practice of democracy – of the people, by the people, and for the people, as the legendary American President Abraham Lincoln once famously said. The government’s role in mitigating their woes is immense. These beggars and their children live in a veritable hell. They must be salvaged. Otherwise the government has no right to talk of it being a democratic government.
If the government can spend money of enormous proportion for glitzy events like Advantage Assam, there is no reason why a stream of sympathy cannot flow towards the multitude of beggars, including their begging children, and why an action plan cannot be formulated and implemented so that they can live under some roof and get their children admitted to schools as well for a life worth living in an otherwise callous and cruel world thus far for them.