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By Laxmi Chyrmang
"A good conscience is a continual Christmas"— a quote by one of the founding fathers of United States, Benjamin Franklin, who believed that Christmas was to be celebrated in the spirit of giving, prevalent all throughout the year.
The year 2020 however has been devastating due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which infected and killed millions and also made many others suffer financially. It wrecked the economy of nations and affected people across all walks.
While we saw the sufferings of the informal economy amidst the havoc, many other people, who already survived on the philanthropy of others for a living, became worse off.
“I used to work as a rag picker which gave me about Rs. 100 per day. But then my livelihood took a hit after I met with a deadly accident, injuring my back and my shoulders,” says Sita Devi (name changed on request), who hails from Qualapatty in Shillong.
“I was unable to do anything and no one would give me a job with the condition my body was in. I had to resort to begging. Many heartless people spit on me sometimes saying I am pretending. And here I do not even have the money to buy medicines for treatment.”
Although she received some food items from the government during the lockdown, but that was very infrequent. “Who thinks about people like us? It is easy for people to tell me to find a job. Many people had a job and lost them during the lockdown. How do I find one?” she adds.
Lebestar, who was thrown out of his house due to the acute poor condition of his family, has been begging since two years in Mawlai, Shillong.
“I did not receive any help from the government during that time. But I know Christ is there for me and there is nothing the virus can do. I will sit without clothes in the cold but I will not steal for a living,” he says, adding that he hopes things will change for him one day.
The predicts that the pandemic will see 150 million people pushed to extreme poverty, with over 80 per cent people being affected in middle income countries such as India.
Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot, in 2018, had quoted the 2011 Census report to highlight that there were about 4.13 lakh beggars and homeless people in India, with the highest number in Assam.
However, there is no official Indian count of the number of people who have been pauperised due to consequences caused by COVID-19.
Many city administrations see begging as an eye-sore for the aesthetics of the city. For instance, in 2009, begging was banned in Shillong because it was seen as damaging to the image of the ‘Scotland of the East’ being a clean city.
“I think beggary should only be criminalised when someone is forced to beg,” said Superintendent of Police (SP City) Vivek Syiem, speaking to TNT-The Northeast Today.
“The problem of petty theft has grown geometrically. Many children, who come from extremely poor families, start begging from the age of eight,” he said, adding that the police is undertaking many initiatives to prevent children from abuse and ensuring that they find proper access to amenities.
Although there is a perception that many resort to begging because it is an easy source of earning livelihood, there are many who are differently abled or have mental illnesses. For other families which suffer from acute poverty, often children are pushed to beg. For securing a plate of food, often there is no choice left but to resort to the streets.
“According to the law children below 14 years cannot work. The problem is complex because they have no other way to secure a livelihood for their families. This is what causes them to beg,” said Kyrmen Shylla, Minister of Social Welfare, Meghalaya.
“The Chief Minister provided us with Rs. 25 lakhs to look after our constituencies. We tried helping people regardless of the expenditure. This Christmas, I want the whole world to pray so that we may have a vaccine soon to eradicate coronavirus. That will be the best Christmas and New Year’s gift for everyone,” he said.
Despite the situation looking grim, many organisations have come forward to look after people who have suffered from extreme poverty during the lockdown.
Reach Shillong Ministries (RSM), not-for-profit organisation, has been catering to the homeless children in Meghalaya since 2007. Following the lockdown, they have been taking care of 40 homeless children.
“The pandemic has affected them a lot as they lacked the proper means to tackle the crisis. We have tried our best in providing rations, necessary needs, soap, hand sanitizers and nutritious bars,” a member of RSM said
“Thankfully, no children have tested positive so far. But if there are any cases, we will take initiative to help them.”
(Edited by Anirban Paul)