Bengaluru, May 1: As the busy evening traffic comes to some semblance of normality on Monday, Mahesh, a beggar in Bengaluru's Marathahalli, dotted with several IT companies, spreads out his torn, dirt-ridden bedsheet on a pavement right outside the popular Innovative Theatre, for a "good night's sleep".
Just then the sudden intrusion by a 'stranger' jolts him a bit before he decides to reply to a query posed by OneIndia.
For a split second, he thinks it's the police and he would be arrested for sleeping on the pavement. Then a faint smile spreads across the wrinkly face of the man in his 50s. "I don't remember my age. I must be 56. Why are you asking me all these questions? Are you a cop?" he asks.
When told that the questions are an attempt to understand his life, Mahesh crackles. "Are you insulting me? I have no life. I beg, eat and sleep. Animals have a better life." He eventually calms down to say that his "life does not matter at all".
"Nobody cares for us. It has been several years I am here in the city. I have stayed in various localities. These days, I am staying in Marathahalli. Please don't write all these, the cops will come and arrest me again," says Mahesh, who revealed that he also has the experience of living in Bengaluru's infamous Beggars' Colony off Magadi Road, where a series of deaths of inmates rattled the nation in 2010.
When asked if he would vote in the Karnataka Assembly elections 2018 scheduled on May 12, he says he doesn't have a voter ID card. "I don't have anything with me. I am a non-entity. I have no state or government," says Mahesh, claiming that he had studied till Class 10 that shaped his "deeply philosophical outlook on existence".
Separated by a few kilometres from Mahesh in Bengaluru is the "anonymous" HIV-infected woman with two children in Singapore Layout. For the past few months, the woman and her kids are staying on pavements after she was forced to vacate her one-room house because she did not have money to pay her rent of around Rs 1,000.
Jyothi, a sex worker-turned-activist who runs her own NGO, Jyothi Mahila Sangha, met the "anonymous" woman a few months ago and since then she has been trying to provide the homeless woman a shelter. "The woman is HIV positive. One of her children has mental illness. The other child is also very weak," says Jyothi, who as a volunteer of the Sahaya Single Window project under the aegis of the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), an NGO, works with homeless people.
Jyothi laments that the most difficult part of working with homeless people in the city is to provide them a roof over their heads. "To be beneficiaries of government-sponsored housing schemes, including Karnataka Chief Minister's One Lakh Housing Scheme for economically weaker section launched last year, people have to submit income and caste certificates. Tell us, from where will poor and illiterate people furnish so many documents?" asks Jyothi.
It is because of rules such as mandatory submission of income and caste certificates, the "grand scheme" of the Siddaramaiah government launched a few months before the Karnataka Assembly elections has received only 300 applications so far.
Agreeing with Jyothi, Uma, one of the 130 volunteers of the Sahaya Single Window project who works with at least 12,000 urban poor in city's Anjanappa Garden, says that those who live on pavements have no access to the house, food, education, healthcare facilities, water and sanitation.
"Children of homeless people don't go to schools and the government is ensuring that these poor children even after growing up remain on footpaths. If the authorities are serious to give housing facilities to urban homeless and poor then they have to do away with asking for so many documents," adds Uma.
According to a survey done by the NGO Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) with the CFAR in 2010, the city has an estimated 17,441 pavement dwellers in its 198 municipal wards. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) maintains that the figure is not more than 2,800 homeless people. Activists say there is no proper figure to confirm the number of homeless, a population that keeps on changing because of its migratory nature, forget about providing them with the benefits of various social schemes.
"When we talk about homeless, it is not just those staying literally on footpaths, but also those who are dumped in a colony or a settlement by authorities with just a tin sheet over their heads. The city has several undeclared slums where there is no water supply, electricity and healthcare facilities," rues Uma.
"Pavement dwellers, who have Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards, are accessing seven kgs rice per person per month. Rest, are beggars," informs Jyothi.
Activists like Uma and Jyothi, who work directly with pavement dwellers, say most of them don't have voter ID cards, but those staying in slums do have, thanks to the upcoming polls. Recently, political parties goaded slum dwellers to apply for voter ID cards as the Election Commission (EC) ran a special enrollment drive for new voters.
Sixty-year-old Saroja, one of the 600 people who were shifted to a slum in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar in the city two years ago, proudly shows her voter ID card. Before finding a roof over her head in a one-room tin house in the slum, the elderly woman was staying under an underpass near Peenya, the industrial hub of Bengaluru.
"We do vote every time there is an election. But we don't have any social entitlements. There is just one toilet in the slum with more than 100 tin homes. Drains here are overflowing and mosquitoes and flies outnumber humans by a thousand times," says Saroja, who is well-respected by the fellow inmates in the slum for her leadership qualities.
Talking about money and muscle power being used to coerce slum dwellers to vote, Saroja without naming any political party says that most parties came and distributed Rs 100 to each voter. "Before that, a political party came and gave Rs 5,000 to each household here," claims Saroja, who originally hails from Tamil Nadu.
Right before the entrance of the slum, there is a night shelter for homeless in Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, where every day at least 50-60 people come to sleep. The city which previously had 13 night shelters, now, has only six of them, further forcing more homeless to sleep under the open sky at night.
All the night shelters are run by NGOs and funded by the BBMP. Back in 2010, the Supreme Court directed all state governments to set up shelters for the homeless in towns with a population of 1 lakh and more. Bengaluru with more than 1 crore population should ideally have 100 night shelters, but we have just six of them and they too are struggling to survive because of lack of funds, says a person managing one of the night shelters in the city. He, however, doesn't want to be named.
"These are election times, I can't speak ill about the BBMP or any corporator. Anyway, often funds from the BBMP don't come on time and we struggle to pay salaries to our employees," rues the official managing the night shelter.
While some of the homeless will stand in long queues on the election day to get their fingers inked, others wonder why authorities and society never care for them.
Mahesh, however, claims to have an answer to all these existential crises in Bengaluru. "This is kalyug and it is pointless to expect anything from rich and powerful. If we have to survive, we have to keep moving."