India: Capitalism’s Systemic Malaise

Beggars death in Bangalore

The death of over 28 inmates at the Beggar’s Rehabilitation Center (popularly known as Beggar’s Colony) in Bangalore and the subsequent drama that unfolded over the past two months has brought into focus the rotten state of affairs in the Karnataka state’s social welfare department. The inmates of the center were living in conditions to what amounted to a concentration camp in extremely miserable and filthy conditions. It was a well known “Secret”, but no media or political parties ever bothered about the plight of the inmates. With already over 287 deaths at the center since January, it was only a disaster waiting to happen.

Bangalore is known across the world as an IT city, a city of technology as well as of affluence. What is unfortunate is that the affluence of the city has not been shared with all. In the deaths and inhuman treatment of the Beggars, one sees the other face of Bangalore. While the poor are being hounded all over the country, with an anti-beggary law, the Karnataka state has imprisoned the poor behind bars. Instead of addressing deep-rooted issues of inequity, illiteracy, unemployment, a skewed distribution of resources and poverty, the government and its strong arm, the police, have been picking the poor and the innocent citizens and admitting them into the beggary home. It is difficult to imagine the justification the state could offer in forcibly admitting into the Beggars’ Colony people who are not beggars.

The deaths and the subsequent hospitalization of many of the inmates of the center was triggered from what has now become infamously known as the independence day lunch (auspicious gift indeed for a people who were virtually held as captives at the center!) by a donor whose name continues to be criminally withheld by the government. For over two days, despite continuous vomiting and diarrhoea, all the inmates were left to fend for themselves by the staff and only after they began to die that the cases were referred to the medical officer at the primary health center in the colony.

BJP’s Contempt for poor

Even more scandalously, the dead bodies were bundled off to the crematorium without proper investigations relating to the circumstances that led to the tragedy. The authorities backed by their political bosses the Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa, the Home Minister V S Acharya, and Police Commissioner Shanker Bidari (notorious for his human rights record) virtually ruled out any possibility of foul play and decreed it as a natural state of affairs due to old age and susceptibility to communicable diseases! This attitude of the BJP government of Karnataka suits very much with the ideology of the communal, pro-upper caste and pro-upper class BJP, which is the political arm of RSS which has a pathological contempt towards all that is considered low and downtrodden in the society.

While the government has ruled out food poisoning as the cause of death, it has put the blame on gastro-enteritis, lack of hygiene and malnourishment as possible causes of death(This itself is an indictment of the BJP Govt.) Even if we go by the government’s words, even a knowledgeable lay person would know that gastro-enteritis is not an highly complicated disease and can be easily treated by provided an adequate fluid balance is maintained in the body caused due to dehydration by vomiting and diarrhoea.

Criminal Negligence

All that was required was an anti-emetic drug to control the vomiting and oral re-hydration fluid for diarrhoea, which can be prepared at any reasonably clean place by mixing a pinch of salt and four teaspoons of sugar to a liter of clean drinking water, this is an effective and simple solution to the problem, but yet diarrhoea is the No. 1 cause of death among children in India. Lack of intervention at a proper time could have further complicated the situation given the low immunity and ailing conditions of many inmates at the center.

The beggar’s colony presented a picture where everything was wrong. Firstly, the number of inmates at the center was grossly high at over 2500, as compared to the capacity of the center to handle only up to 900 inmates. With the inmates packed as herds of sheep in the dormitories which remained unclean and not disinfected for months together, toilets overflowing with faeces, stench of urine being everywhere, the conditions were not fit for even animals let alone humans. Whatever funds allocated in the budget for the rehabilitation, the funds were grossly mismanaged, underutilised or siphoned off to other priority (pocket) areas and the inmates were left to rot and die.

None of the recommendations made by a legislature committee with regards to the maintenance of the center were ever implemented by the Social welfare department of Karnataka. No segregation was carried out on the basis of health issues, instead all of them were packed into the same rooms, no dietary changes were made and the primary health center at the colony was extremely understaffed functioning with only a single doctor, whereas the committee had recommended posting five doctors at the center. The horrifying stories that were given to the fact finding committees by the inmates indicates that the authorities treated them more like they treat criminals rather than people unfortunately driven to destitution.

PPP is an alibi to privatse!

Another aspect which has not received much attention is that the primary health center was being run under public – private partnership (PPP) with the NGO Karuna Trust, headed by Dr. H Sudarshan (winner of Right to Livelihood or Alternative Noble), a known votary of NGO partnership with government in running primary health centers. Well nothing much seems to have changed under the management of Karuna Trust, primary health center which continues to be understaffed, ill-equipped and is not able to discharge all the obligations of a health center that includes ensuring preventive measures to stop the spread of infectious diseases and continuous monitoring of the health status of the inmates.

If the tragic deaths of the inmates is anything to go by, that the PPP of the social services is not the solution to the problem. But if the government’s thinking is, it is for more such PPP model and this time it is to address nutrition by tying up with the notorious ISKCON (International Krishna Consciousness) for providing meals to the inmates.

The tragedy has given an ideal opportunity for the corrupt neo-liberal BJP government, to demonstrate that the state’s services are bound to be inefficient and thereby it is time to abdicate all the moral obligations of the government to the welfare of the beggars and allow NGO’s/ charities to step in.

This calamity is a direct result of government’s [including the previous Congress and JD(S)] deliberate strategy of starving the center of funds and running an extremely inefficient system that was bound to fail. Whatever changes that government has promised with regard to improving the center will only be cosmetic and the situation will continue to rot. How can the government change the situation overnight when the problem is systemic and the rot flows from the top, not from below. While the establishment has promised posting more doctors at the center, the question is where will the doctors come from, when the health department of the state is itself understaffed for doctors and super specialists.

Neo- liberalism is the culprit

The disaster has once again reiterated the consequence of neo-liberal economics with least priority to social services, especially towards the downtrodden, socially exploited and vulnerable groups such as beggars who are not even considered as humans beings let alone welfare beneficiaries. It is apt to remember that the tragedy took place in the so called IT capital (which boasts of huge GDP contribution) of the country and shows how much development has trickled down to the poor and the marginalised. If anything , development has come at the cost of further marginalisation of the oppressed classes rather than the other way around.

Capitalism breeds destitution – dump it!

The so called development at any cost leading to loss of land, homes and livelihoods across the country will only exacerbate, and not eradicate beggary. In the last instance, beggary is only a deeper symptom of a larger malaise in the society under capitalism whose sole worship of profit is sure to trample on and continue to deprive all the basic rights and necessities of the poorer sections of the society.

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October 2010