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Rebuilding capacities in India, rebuilding lives

Any plans for the social and economic empowerment of ‘beggars’ will work only if they address the factors that affect people negatively, forcing them out of their work/livelihood, and eventually pushing them into extreme destitution and dependence.

India has Beggary Prevention Legislation in more than 20 states where not only are destitute people arrested but also people who work in the unorganized sector stand the risk of punishment. Under this legislation, the manner in which begging has been described as an offence and the punishment meted out (detention of up to 10 years in government-certified institutions), makes a wide profile of people potentially vulnerable.

Links between destitution and beggary range from helpless people in extremities falling into beggary to the state punishing the working poor on charges of beggary: they cover migrant workers, rural poor, de-notified tribes, the aged and abandoned; as well as women, transgender and other people affected by caste violence etc. More serious and complex measures are required to deal with these factors than poor people being pushed out of the cities to the margins or criminalized through the Beggary Prevention Acts. 

Any plans for the social and economic empowerment of these people will work only if they address the factors that affect people negatively, forcing them out of their work/livelihood, and eventually pushing them into extreme destitution and dependence. Instead traditional skills like fortune telling or the performing arts have been equated with begging, placing people from these communities into custodial institutions and taking away their livelihood, shelter and resources – actions that effect not only that one individual, but an entire family of dependants. Therefore, the decriminalization of poverty in the form of the Beggary Prevention Legislation is the foremost requirement before any other skills or capacity building programmes are planned. 

But when it comes to reskilling, individual skill assessments, job counselling and financial assistance are critical to any effective rehabilitation programme. Apart from vocational or livelihood training, the process must involve inputs like mental preparedness, emotional stability, linkages with prospective employers, developing social skills and so on. 

A pilot scheme at Koshish

Koshish has been working inside government custodial institutions for seven years now. We started in Mumbai in 2006 and extended our work to Delhi institutions in 2009.

Building on integrating the above mentioned components, we implemented this as a pilot with really encouraging results. Though implemented on a small scale and in custodial homes in only two cities of Delhi and Mumbai, the outcomes are significant enough to encourage a further investment of resources and energy into this as a ‘Model Cycle’. The process, though it is hoped one day to take it outside the walls of custodial institutions, continues to remain residential in nature.

Rehabilitation and reintegration are contingent on the creation of steady and adequate livelihood options. This involves a set of stages where a person is prepared mentally to give up beggary and make themselves ready to work. Their capacity to engage with various livelihood options is developed through the training in a range of vocational skills, before linking them up with employment alternatives. This is also the phase where a person’s emotional stability is assessed and social skills are developed that enable that person to deal with the challenges of everyday life and ready him /her for community-based rehabilitation. 

i) Mental preparedness: This is the first stage of the cycle. Getting the person mentally prepared to give up begging and work becomes very critical. No amount of training or capacity building would help unless the person is willing and prepared mentally to change the way of life. 

ii) Personality assessment: Individual’s socio-cultural background, past experiences and personality combine together to determine how one would respond to the training alternatives offered. Caste and cultural conditioning too play a significant role here. For example, a person belonging to the so called ‘upper caste’ would never last as a cleaner. Similarly, a person with an aggressive personality cannot be put to  work that involves pressure situations or public interface. 

This stage involves counselling, personality assessment and careful planning processes. Individual’s traditional knowledge/ skills and interests play a significant role in the finalization of training. After an assessment has been made, the client is referred to the ‘Vocational Training Unit’. 

iii) Capacity building through work skills and support thereafter: Vocational guidance and support activities focus on not only skills training and capacity building, but also the facilitation of access to the employment market. A multi-tiered approach is followed, addressing individual needs while exploring how training can deal with needs at the group level.  Skill-based training units have been set up inside Beggars’ Homes, after an understanding has been reached with other agencies offering vocational training. Presently, we offer training in electrical works, tailoring, paper bag making, artificial jewellery, handicrafts, designer candles, small ornaments, cooking and plumbing. Training has to be either into a skill that secures work individually or is well linked with activities of the employment/ production groups.

A stipend is provided to ensure that there is sufficient motivation as well as ‘pride for work’ among the trainees, who are encouraged to see this as their ‘rightful reward’ and put ‘value’ on such earnings. This plays a critical role in changing peoples’ perspectives towards life. It instils them with a feeling of pride and ownership towards the work. Providing an identity with a bank account is also a small yet significant step towards furthering this sense of pride. 

iv) Employer’s Collective: Employment is crucial for the transition from homelessness to self reliance. The Employer’s Collective has been established with the dual purpose of defending the person in the court when charged with beggary and also seeking employment for people completing the vocational training. This consists of a group of employers mostly from the unorganized sector, brought together to provide job opportunities to people on completion of vocational training.Also, potential employers are educated about Beggary Prevention Law and why they must support the person who worked for them in the event of him getting arrested.  The idea is to create as diverse a group as possible so that there is a wide range of alternatives for the clients to choose from.

This has become an important plank in the overall protection of the rights of homeless people and  so far this group of employers, who understand our philosophy, has proved to be a major player in the scheme when it comes to guaranteeing its economic stability.

Once this process is complete, the individual is more or less prepared to navigate their way through the challenges of a challenging streetlife. However, the rawness that people develop in the process of the struggle for survival on the street can be a major obstacle in stable rehabilitation. Not used to routine and disciplined life, very often a person finds it difficult to continue if they come under too much pressure. To address this, life skills training is provided as a concluding part of the preparation.

There are two components to this phase: 

1. Life skills training:  Focus group discussions and other sessions are conducted on the value of relations, work, dignity, personal responsibility etc. This also serves as a platform for people to ventilate their own thoughts and feelings and to freely express their aspirations. It is hoped that a more confident and assured side of them can be brought out through these sessions.

2. Recreation and cultural activities: To improve the custodial environment, activities including sports, street plays, drawing etc. are organized. This introduces more of a sense of freedom among people while in custody and also enables them to explore and express themselves in better ways. These recreation sessions are conducted regularly to prevent people from stagnation in their lives while living in custody. Also, this helps significantly in checking unres and the aggression of the care-taking staff which ultimately results in checking custodial violence. 

Given the depressing environment and abusive background that most people come from, it is critical to break with the sadness and hopelessness that surrounds them. All these activities are intended to facilitate the client’s social skills and repair the emotional strains that people have suffered, thus creating a positive environment leading to a speedy recovery.

Beggary is possibly the worst form of helplessness and destitution. Over a period of time, it has become a ‘way of life’ for large numbers of people. Exit also takes time. Work like the kind that Koshish undertakes has demonstrated that this is possible. What we need to understand is that for these people, begging is never their ‘preferred way of living’.

About the author

Mohammad Tarique is an Ashoka Fellow and assistant professor and programme head for Koshish, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.

 


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