Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Madurai - Some thoughts on Urban Homelessness

The well-being of all its citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable is, to a great extent, dependent on the state policies and the mechanisms to implement the same. There are even greater spaces to be filled up by the state, where the society and neighbourhood communities fail to be humane. Even if the general societal feeling happens to be more accommodative, there is still a strategic lack to prove that as a means for the well-being of the excluded groups, such as homeless.

The present study has tried to trace out the role played by the state in affecting the lives of Madurai’s homeless in both positive and negative ways. There are indeed a few important initiatives to be elaborated here. The study has also tried to take stock of few more initiatives other than Governmental. These non-governmental initiatives are temporary solutions in nature and here we feel the importance of the state to play its insignificant role in a polished manner.

The discussions with the officials of the Madurai Corporation, revealed a fact that the homeless people are nowhere in their past or present agenda. Especially, the town planning division of the Corporation has just invisiblised the whole lot of homeless population in its developmental projects and they completely feel that homeless people are not at all their consideration. Citing all their financial hurdles, the Corporation officials believe that the responsibility to rehabilitate the city’s homeless people lies upon the State government and their regime is limited to the provision of needed basic services to the ‘legitimate’ citizens of the city, i.e., who live in houses. It is that financial resources have not been decentralised to local bodies in the state on par with the decentralisation of responsibilities. The Corporation wants to play a safer game without leaping into the deeps of unknown risks, and caters to those who have power, and are least bothered about the coreless, mostly who do not even vote. On the other hand the state government has strategically pulled out its hand in the name of decentralising the responsibility. As the homeless have been thrust into no-man’s land, their well being has gradually become no-one’s responsibility.

Police, being the prime force of the state government, has an important role to play in allowing as well as not allowing the homeless population to live on the streets/pavements. Anyhow the police force of the city was more patient towards the homeless crowd and was not torturing them to leave their residing places or not even taking any measures to rehabilitate them. As the Justices F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla and K. Veeraraghavan of Madurai Bench of Chennai High Court have mentioned in their recent court order to rehabilitate the Madurai homeless beggars, the Head of Police Administration in Madurai city itself was not aware of the functioning of the Special care homes and the Government care camps in the State. Even the persons who were arrested (which happened very rarely) for alleged begging, were detained under public nuisance case and not under the Tamilnadu Prevention of Begging Act, 1945. It is again important to note here that majority of the homeless populace of the city is being dependent on securing alms for their livelihood and the above said act of 1945 marks begging as a punishable offence. Still, the police force was not ready to effectively implement the prevention act only because of the rehabilitation elements contained in it following the initial detentions. The most disadvantageous part of the act is that it starts with the proposition that begging is a punishable offence and thus allows the use of brute force in detaining them in the initial stage before rehabilitating them. But that is the only way any state would know to shift its unmanageable sect of people into the manageable sphere.

Towards the end of 2006, a lawyer, who said to be affected by the homeless beggars of the city, filed a writ petition in the Madurai Bench of Chennai High Court requesting to direct the state or its police force to strictly implement the above said beggary prevention act. The court, on March 26 of 2007 issued an order favouring the writ petition and even awarded him with a cash reward of Rs.10,000. The order forces the police to detain the homeless beggars of the city and then to rehabilitate them in Special care home and work house which is situated only in one place for the entire state. The court has ruled out the inconveniences that the Police may need to face due to this single rehabilitation home for the entire state. This has led the police force to detain many of the homeless people of the city, including much of the respondents of the present study and consequently sent many of them to the rehabilitation home, which is situated in Melpakkam near Chennai. But this so called rehabilitation measure has made many of the homeless people to leave for nearby towns and another significant portion of the homeless people has temporarily escaped to their villages and again came back to their streets after all these rehabilitation drama is over.

The Government with its conservative mechanism many a times resort to the same kind of invisiblisation and custodialisation in order to deal with the unmanageable sect of its population. But, what is needed is to provide the rehabilitation measures a humane face and lifting up the responsibility of rehabilitating them from the police department so as to include the same in the agenda of social justice or other similar department.

There is also a general but illusory idea that the free food provision in temples at the lunch time serves the homeless people to a great extent. It is said to be illusory as the discussions with few temple authorities of Madurai Mennakshi Temple revealed that the preference in free food provision is given to the devotees of the temple who come from different parts of the country. They rarely consider the homeless people who resides adjacent to the temple premises and at few times they are served with the left over food items. The scheme of free provision of lunch in temples was introduced mostly as a means to attract more votes from the upper caste Hindu community and not very much to serve the poor people.

But, there are few non governmental agencies that are committed to provide free food to the homeless population of the City. Some of them are very much focused as they do not serve any able bodied homeless person with free food. They want to serve only the old aged, disabled and mentally disturbed homeless populace in Madurai. There are anyhow other voluntary efforts for providing free food to the homeless without such discriminations. What is lacking with these organisations is a long term vision for rehabilitating the homeless people and most of them feel that it is Government’s duty to find a way out. Those who do not believe in state existence too have narrowed vision of rehabilitation homes which again needs a lot of external funding to be poured in.

The root cause of Madurai’s homelessness is very much in the failures of families and native societies in having a humane face towards these vulnerable people. Thus, even if the Government wants to rehabilitate them, the efforts should be taken with a humane touch and not by using brute force.

The solutions lies also in financial decentralisation from state to the local Governments, which can again help the Corporation to have an independent plan for City development by accommodating the homeless people in its broader agenda. Secondly, preventing the police force from implementing the outdated ‘prevention of beggary act of 1945’ to detain the homeless beggars for the so called rehabilitation. There instead rehabilitative centres can be initiated in the city itself by having the involvement of the voluntary organisations. Government run night shelters will be another way to accommodate them as a measure to protect their otherwise unsafe nights. Provision of better alternatives for their livelihoods would still be challenge until there are safer measures for their initial rehabilitation.

People indeed take the hard decision of coming out of their homes at the peeks of their being not respected and also their reasons and reasoning for being homeless are to be respected. Still, efforts can be very well taken to restore themselves in their families or native societies if it can turn out to create a pleasant outlook. The implementation comfort of this strategy is yet to be discussed upon.

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