Thursday, August 19, 2010

Death hangs in the air like the fetid stench

Death hangs in the air like the fetid stench
Chandan Nandy and Debi Prasad Sarangi, , Bangalore, August 18, DH News Service:

At Beggars’ Colony, 2,533 wretched men and women live in that twilight zone where life and death have lost all meaning

Scrawny and unwashed, some sit on their haunches, a few lie curled up on thin mats on the floor and some other wasted forms wallow in their own faeces and urine. Their eyes look up but there is neither life nor light in them. They mumble and gesture, seeking freedom from the fetid environs of Bangalore's Beggars' Colony at Kamakshipalya.

Spread over a sprawling 150 acres, with verdant lawns and trees, the Beggars' Colony is a concentration camp for the City's unwanted. Here 2,533 wretched men and women lead subhuman lives: their skins are caked in dirt and filth, they get to eat practically nothing, relieve themselves in the open for the toilets are choked with their excreta and overflowing with their urine, the large halls are so full of stench that they prefer eating and sleeping in the courtyards.

The beggars and vagrants that the State Social Welfare department routinely rounds up on the City's streets are herded into eight dark, dingy, cold and malodorous living quarters which officials euphemistically describe as dormitories. The men occupy six and the women two. Deaths occur almost every day.

Most of the inmates are emaciated, several limp, a number of them use sticks as crutches while a few drag themselves with the help of their hands and haunches. "The vegetable dish is more like a thin soup, the rice smells," said Venugopal Rao who hails from Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh and has been living in the appalling conditions of Block 5 for the past two years.

As Venugopal describes how he landed up at the Beggars’ Colony, another inmate, scratching his scabby legs, drags himself near the two correspondents, tugging at one's trousers and indicating with his fingers that he desperately needed a cigarette. Another wipes his running nose and mumbles some gibberish, his mouth emanating a sickly odor.
Outside, other men in dirt-laden khaki shirts and shorts hang around. They do not talk among themselves; their blank eyes are fixed on nothing particular and they are listlessly unmindful of the misery and wretchedness around them. Barely 20 metres away is the kitchen which, like the living quarters, emanates such a nauseating smell that can churn the innards and force anyone to throw up. Employees had liberally sprinkled phenyle at the entrance to the kitchen to camouflage the revolting smell of decomposing food.

Next to the kitchen are the two blocks that house the women beggars. Most are draped in blue, standard issue sarees, while others are clothed in rags and tattered nighties. Shorn of shame and dignity in a place which has over the years built a notoriety for reducing men and women to subhuman, the women, like the men, prefer the courtyards to the halls. Some lie on mats, covered from head to toe in blankets that a few donors have provided, other recline against the walls that have not been whitewashed for years, and yet others wash themselves or defecate or urinate in the open.

Scratching her lice-infested hair, 30-year-old Bibi Fatima, who has been an inmate for four months, has lost most of her teeth. Her hair has patches of grey, the cheeks sunken and the eyes that are more like a trapped animal's. "I have a family in Chamarajpet when I was picked up and thrown here," says Fatima, as Nagina wants to be let out so she could observe the Ramzan fast at home.

Among the women is H Lakshmi, a deaf-and-dumb from Thiruvottiyur in Chennai, who was rounded up in a beggar removal raid, a month back. She was among 1,633 men and women who were picked up from the streets of Bangalore in the last three months, an indication of the government's overdrive to rid the City of those living on the margins.
There are no degrees of misery among the colony's miserable, though the office block wears a spic and span look with clean red carpets that adorn the floors and the corridors. The chairman's chamber has a faux teak table, the sofas are plush, the chair comfortable and a faint fragrance of a cheap room-freshener hangs in the air-conditioned air.

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