Angus Roche speaks with a few beggars and sex workers in Madurai, unravelling the mysteries and misconceptions shrouding those driven by their poverty to seek their livelihood through unconventional means.
The stories of those living in extreme poverty in India are plentiful, but seldom told. For the most part, those in favourable circumstances think that they are powerless to solve such issues and thus find it easier to ignore them altogether, but some stumble across other reasons to avoid discussing the impoverished. For example, the very first person I come across whilst wandering the streets of Madurai in search of the destitute, dressed rather shabbily at Periyar Bus Stand, chastises me for wanting to interview beggars. For reasons I am unable to describe, he looks oddly like a preacher standing alone at this busy public place, long grey hair and beard blowing wildly in the wind. I am surprised to discover, upon asking him where we might find some homeless people to talk to, that he speaks perfect English.
“Why do you want to write about these people?” he asks. “It’s a pointless, superficial activity, and it helps no one. All you are doing is drawing attention to yourself. If you truly want to help those who are less fortunate, then do so directly.”
Slightly taken aback, I explain to him that my money and food will only go so far in helping people. Whatever relief my direct assistance may bring would be temporary; it isn’t addressing the root of the problem. Besides which, I haven’t the resources to give direct help to all the legions of people (over 20 percent of the world’s population, according to the World Bank) that live in abject poverty.
The man shakes his head. “Helping someone today lays the foundations for tomorrow,” he tells me. “All people in poverty are interrelated. Each person is like a single branch of a tree, together forming a cohesive whole. By helping the individuals, you are also helping the entire community.”
One might call such an outlook optimistic. I would call it naive. For the homeless and insolvent, the occasional meal or a few rupees is feeble and largely worthless in terms of their enduring standard of living. An idea, however, is resilient, powerful and eternal. To talk about the issues is to spread the word, and to put pressure on the people who do have the resources to address such problems permanently, NGOs and governments. Investments must be made in long-term solutions for large numbers of people, not short-term relief for small numbers of people.
Abandoned and Helpless
More determined than ever to delve into the lives of the impoverished, I eventually come across two rather large communities of 20-30 homeless people living at the train station and around the Meenakshi temple. Mr S.D. Jayaraman (pictured above) had quite a comfortable early life. Born in Chennai in 1944, he completed ninth-standard education in 1967 and then owned a successful tea store with 11 people under his command. But after losing his ability to walk through an electric shock from his television, working was no longer an option. Considered a burden by his family, his son sold his house for more than 3 million rupees and he has been living on the street ever since.
Such stories of disability combined with family disputes are commonplace amongst Madurai’s beggar population. Meera Momi has long since lost count of her exact age, but she estimates she has been homeless for more than ten years. Her family dynamic was ripe with tension, culminating in her son murdering his wife and attempting to usurp the family fortunes. Now isolated, she found that employers were reluctant to give her work due to her bad eyesight, so she resorted to begging and sleeping around Meenakshi temple. On a good day she makes a mere Rs. 20, but she has not considered moving elsewhere. Due to her poor vision, she would prefer to stay in one place.
Impoverished by Choice
But of course, one can’t automatically assume that all beggars have such a tragic life story or desperate intentions. Begging in India doesn’t necessarily have the same stigma or indignity attached to it as it does in more developed places. There are many more practical reasons why people may choose to beg, making it all the more difficult for sympathetic observers to decide where best they should direct their assistance.
The next time you are coming out of Madurai Junction, look directly to your right: Torrential downpour or scorching heat, a man from Andhra Pradesh has been sitting there at the same spot for the last 17 years. But he stays there by choice, rather than out of necessity. His family and the police have numerous times tried to relieve him from his makeshift home, but he is adamant he should stay. A devout Hindu, he claims that he received a message from the gods telling him to live near Goddess Meenakshi at the train station in Madurai. Out of principle, he refuses to accept offers of money, taking only food and cigarettes from compassionate passers-by.
Another man (pictured bottom left) I approach who lives at the bridge in between Pasumalai and Madurai central has rotting teeth, a long scruffy beard and clothes as ripped and dirty as any I have ever seen. But nonetheless, he refuses to even acknowledge my presence, let alone my offerings of food, water and money. Continuing to snack on a putrid apple, he speaks not one word and eventually wanders away. Utterly bemused, the locals explain to me that he is mentally ill and that, for the most part, he does not want or require the help of others. He is self-sufficient, and only ever accepts offers of food or money if he is desperately hungry. As we leave the area, though, we see him searching through a dumpster for something.
Is it our duty as compassionate world citizens to protect these people from the squalor that they live in, even if we have to do so by force? One could easily make an argument for the answer being yes, particularly in the case of the destitute mentally ill, who arguably do not have the intellectual capacity to decide what is and isn’t good for them. Due largely to a lack of political will to address the problem, the vast majority of mentally retarded people abandoned by their families aren’t lucky enough to find themselves in institutions designed to care for them.
A Professional approach
An additional dilemma-inducing class of people for potential donors are those who certainly want your money, but don’t necessarily require it for noble purposes. Not restricted by their sense of pride, some people see begging as a legitimate profession, rather than a last resort. One woman we talk to reveals that she has a job cleaning a restaurant in her hometown, where she earns enough to pay for her son’s government school fees. However, she often travels to the surrounding areas to beg when large tourist attractions are present (such as the recent Ramadan festival in Madurai), where she can earn money at a much higher rate. Due to her busy travel schedule, she took her son out of school after third standard to keep him close by.
Moreover, substance abuse is relatively common amongst the homeless. Mr K. Mookan (pictured bottom left) graciously accepts our money and request for an interview, before shamelessly revealing that he is alcohol dependant and spends the vast majority of the money he earns from begging on liquor. He in fact receives government pension money, works erratically as a labourer and has an ongoing offer of support from his son. However, in order to get enough money to feed his addiction, he chooses to beg and sleep around Meenakshi temple.
An even more sinister alternative to the traditional beggar story may also be thriving underground. Though of course none of the beggars I interviewed were willing to discuss such a possibility, reports have been made of mafia bosses rounding up the homeless community in the greater Madurai area into some kind of organised mob. Worse still, these crime lords have been known not only to make a huge profit off the backs of the underprivileged, but also to employ certain tactics in order to maximise their revenue; tactics that often involve small children, who generally evoke greater empathy from the public and thus make more money.
So whilst it isn’t always easy to ignore the confronting poverty present on the streets of Madurai, handing out cash may even be exacerbating the problem rather than fixing it. Supporting NGOs that work to improve the lives of the destitute is a legitimate alternative; one such organisation feeds the homeless community at Madurai Junction every Friday, for example. But without the undivided and unwavering support of both the Tamil and Indian governments, such relief will not be widespread or permanent. Consistent quality education, as a means of giving these people another option, is paramount, both for the homeless and for other weaker sections of Indian society.
Educating the Underprivileged
The People’s Association of Community Health Education (PACHE) Trust is a not-for-profit non-government organisation that has worked amongst the poorer sections of the Madurai and Theni districts since 1987. In the past they have campaigned for universal education and women’s rights, and now their primary goal is to educate sex workers in and around Madurai about safer sex practices, including the containment of HIV/AIDS (see on page 8). The organisation works with over 2000 sex workers in Madurai, with whom they came into contact through several notorious sex brokers, who often drive rickshaws as their day job. They have kindly agreed to put me in touch with five such women willing to talk with me about their profession, and I meet first with the programme manager, G. Jhansi Sunitha (pictured above), to discuss the social aims of the PACHE Trust.
“We do our absolute utmost to stay out the politics and stigma associated with the sex industry,” says Mrs Sunitha. “We don’t support the legalisation of prostitution, nor do we try to limit the number of people entering the industry, or tell the sex workers that they should not be doing what they do. We merely equip them with the knowledge and resources to practice their profession safely, and ensure that their working conditions are both comfortable and sustainable.”
The organisation does, however, work towards giving the women other money-making options by training them to acquire skills in other areas. This is at least partly because of their long term obligation to find a new job, as men generally do not crave the services of a sex worker over the age of 40. Due to the surprisingly large yet covert demand for sex workers in Madurai, the average young sex worker may engage in sexual activity as many as 50 times a month. The trust also aims to reduce this number, even if this does mean sacrificing a significant proportion of their wages, which often border on the astronomically high (in some cases more than Rs. 20,000 a month).
A Regrettable Necessity
The first sex worker I talk to entered paid sex work several years ago after her husband was arrested. Lacking the skills required to perform any more than rudimentary work, she could not afford to give her children regular meals or send them to school. The idea of resorting to sex work was thrust upon her when the owner of the house she was cleaning as a stock-gap job, aware of her desperation for cash, offered to pay her for sex. Having been introduced to countless other clients since then, she has grown desensitised to the shame that accompanies such an act. She continues to work in the sex industry even after her husband was released from jail as he refuses to support the family, spending all the money he earns on alcohol and often beating her. Sex work is not something she enjoys; rather she sees it as a necessary means of making money, the same as any other profession. Her two children now go to school and have an abundance of food.
Another woman I talk to got involved in the sex industry at the age of 14 years when the father of the village prostitution house she was cleaning for money got her drunk, locked her in a room with a man and sold her for sex. Disputes ensued when her family ascertained this, and she ran away from home shortly afterwards. Money being scarce, she resorted to the only way she knew she could consistently make enough funds to live off. Now in her late thirties, she has been working in the sex industry for over 20 years. Given any alternative she would quit without a second thought, but she is alcohol-dependant and thus requires a lot more money than she could possibly earn from a low-paying job. Nonetheless, despite all the indignity of her profession and life in general, she still resolutely maintains some of her pride; she does not accept money to perform oral sex, even though she can make twice as much money from it than she can from intercourse, and out of principle refuses to facilitate underage girls joining the industry.
Sex Work by Choice
But just as I am starting to think that every life story I hear would be one of compounding tragedy, I meet a woman who reports that she is ‘very happy’ with her profession. Though initially driven to the sex industry by financial strife, she found herself to be enjoying the welcome respite she received from her unsatisfactory sex life with her husband, who is over ten years older than her. Now making a small fortune every month, she does not feel the need to seek a new career path, nor does she think she would abuse such an opportunity if one presented itself. Since the younger generation almost always enter the industry out of financial necessity, which is in her opinion a justified rationale, she would not necessarily advise them against taking up sex work. She even acts somewhat like a broker, directing her contacts to younger sex workers if they so request, and half-jokingly tells me that I can get her phone number off Mrs Sunitha!
In fact, the only real problem she seems to have with her profession is that she has to carry out all her practices behind closed doors. Sex work being frowned upon almost unanimously across cultures, she lives her life in constant fear. If anyone finds out how she makes her cash then the news would spread like wildfire, her house owner would kick her out and she and her family would be shunned, she says. To avoid being seen, therefore, she often makes a tiresome journey to small villages outside Madurai to fulfil her client’s wishes. And this is not an irrational idea, as corrupt police officers have been known to arrest women carrying condoms in public on suspicion of sex work, despite having no other evidence to suggest this being the case. She urges the Tamil government to legalise commercial sex, so that Tamil law and people could begin to recognise sex work as a legitimate profession.
It is hard to say how prevalent such an opinion is amongst sex workers in Madurai: a sample of five women willing to talk to a magazine about their humiliating and illegal practices is almost certainly not representative of the entire population of sex workers. Obviously though, laws forbidding sex work have not prevented the industry from flourishing, and if legalised then workers would be better informed about safer sex practices. On the other hand, ethical standards in India are opposed to encouraging commercial sex, and legalising the industry might give rise to organised sex in brothels and red light areas. In such a scenario, brokers often make a huge profit from organising meetings between clients and the workers, a culture which under the current system has all but died out in Madurai. Here, information about the sex industry has been widely spread by word-of-mouth since the popularisation of the mobile phone.
Shame and regret are the two most common emotions I hear expressed by the sex workers. All but one of the women I talk to would strongly advise youngsters to seek alternatives to paid sex and not one has told a single person, not even their most trusted friend or family member, how they earn their cash. The tide is changing in terms of the Indian taboo surrounding sex, however, both as a profession and in a more general sense. When Mrs. Sunitha first began working at the PACHE trust, she was shunned by her friends and acquaintances for associating herself with commercial sex workers, despite her clearly noble intentions. But slowly, assisted by the consistent support of her family, she and the organisation she works for have become accepted by the majority of the community.
In spite of a few notable anomalies, without a doubt the overarching theme throughout my interviews with both the sex workers and beggars is one of tied hands. It seems these people are merely common citizens who have encountered more than their fair share of misfortune and for reasons beyond their control had to make the regrettable decision to pursue an ignoble career. And whilst there is still one person out there who has been forced into this predicament through no fault of their own, then this is unacceptable. The government should and must do more to ensure that every Indian citizen has the opportunity to work in a respectable job in good conditions.
The place to start is with education, but this alone is not sufficient. Measures must also be undertaken to guarantee that the mentally and physically disabled, currently lining Madurai’s streets, receive adequate care. Equally, the government must invest in upgrading food storage facilities, currently inadequate and resulting in up to Rs. 580,000 crore worth of food prematurely decomposing each year. This is a widespread problem that the public must also consider, to make certain that the underprivileged will no longer suffer due to the greed and apathy of the more fortunate.