Om Prakash, an old homeless man, has been living outside Wenger’s Deli in New Delhi’s Connaught Place for the past 10-12 years. He is not sure but he thinks he was born in 1951, somewhere in Bihar. After his accountant father died, his family got sucked in poverty since his mother was illiterate. Eventually, Prakash moved to Delhi, when he was in his early twenties for better employment opportunities. However, despite working hard, his circumstances made him a beggar.
“I wasn’t always a beggar. I worked hard all my life and earned a respectable living. Once I even lived in a rented room, but that was when I used to work in a cloth factory. I have worked as a farm labourer and at construction sites. However, when old age caught up, my health deteriorated. Manual labour became impossible. I had no permanent home, so I was on the streets. After I lost my toe to diabetes, I used to clean cars and windshields, but now I am too fragile to do such work and so have to depend on the kindness of givers,” said Prakash.
The Department of Social Welfare of the Delhi government says that the problem of begging in Delhi is mostly due to unemployment and migration to the city from other states.
Even though begging is a crime in India, under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which was extended to the national capital in 1960, the department says that begging is a major problem in the country because of the severely low rate of conviction in such cases. The department also has three anti-begging squads that conduct raids from time to time. A welfare officer, along with a police constable, conducts the raids. According to the law, once a beggar is caught, he/she needs to be produced in the beggar’s court within 24 hours of his/her apprehension. The police also needs to provide to the magistrate videographic evidence of begging during raids, but that is not always possible. “Even when we go to conduct raids and catch hold of beggars, they get released for the lack of videographic evidence,” a source added.
The department has also identified several types of beggars including traditional beggars, professional beggars, community beggars, destitution begging, and drug addicts. The department has seven beggar homes in the capital, where beggars are moved after the beggar’s court convicts them. The department is also supposed to maintain these beggar homes, providing them with lodging, food, medical care and vocational training for the convicted beggars. But currently there are not more than 100 beggars in the beggar homes, against the sanctioned combined accommodating strength of 1,800.
The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 criminalised begging with the aim to shift beggars from their current illegal profession so that they may be detained, trained and eventually employed elsewhere. However, activists and advocates of homeless people consider the existing law as a violation of rights.
Under the Act, a “beggar” is defined as anyone “having no visible means of subsistence, and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner, as makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms”. Begging under the 1959 Act includes “soliciting or receiving alms in a public place, whether or not under any pretence of singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale”. The provisions of the 1959 Act give carte blanche powers to the enforcement agencies.
“Last year, the police arrested a 35-year-old woman from a public urinal because she ‘looked like a beggar’ to them. That woman worked with us part-time. She was definitely poor, but wasn’t a beggar. The Act allows the police to arrest ‘beggars’ without warrant. They can be detained in certified institutions for a period of not less than one year or for a period of up to 10 years for second-time offenders. Moreover, because of arbitrary, disproportional and discriminatory enforcement mechanisms, poverty coupled with natural disability or frail health have also been a basis for arrest under the 1959 Act. The Act also has provisions that allow officers to detain people because they are leprosy patients or lunatics,” said Sunil Kumar Aledia, CEO, Centre for Holistic Development (CHD). The Human Rights Law Network has criticised the existing law for being “archaic and colonial with racist undertones” and wanting to “clear the poor away from upper class areas.”
IN SEARCH OF WORK
Ganga, a middle-aged woman came to Delhi with her four children from Maharashtra’s Solapur district about seven years ago. She couldn’t find an employment here and since then has been occasionally begging at the traffic signals in central Delhi and sometimes when she has money, she sells balloons with her children. She lost her youngest daughter in Delhi a few years ago while the children were asleep on a pavement near Connaught Place.
“These people come to big cities searching for work and hoping for a better life. Some of them came one or two generations ago and now their children are also stuck in this vicious cycle. The mindset is that it is better to stay in a city and struggle than to go back to their villages. A majority of them would give up begging if they are given employment, though there still will be a considerable number among them who would prefer to live by begging,” explained Aledia, who has been working for the rights of homeless people for over a decade now.
“Though in all these years I have never come across any ‘gangs’ or ‘begging mafias’ in Delhi, but existence of human trafficking for begging cannot be ruled out totally. It is difficult to get hold of these rackets. Only a strong state machinery can detect them,” said Aledia.
However, a UNICEF International Aspire2Inspire report said, “The organised ‘beggar mafia’ operating in India are the worst kind of capitalists ever to walk this planet, which can go to any lengths to safeguard their selfish interests; not even hesitating to hurt or maim the young, the elderly and the children alike, if it increases their chances of earning more.” The report further said: “The brutal ways of the beggar mafia have no limits. Their ‘working logic’ is to beat and torture kids and usually maim them for life to invoke pity and sympathy from the people, who in turn would give more alms.”
Among a group of children pre-teens outside the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place is Pandya, a seven-year-old who came to Delhi from Rajasthan with his parents, but who lost his mother a year ago. “My mother died because she used to eat powder (probably cocaine/heroine) and since then, I stay with my grandmother on the pavement. My grandmother sends me to beg because we would not be able to eat otherwise. Some people give us money, but many don’t,” Pandya said.
“Substance abuse is a leading factor why these people are not able to move out of the dumps. They don’t feel motivated to live a better life as long as they are getting their poison. The children are the easiest victims. They are threatened and forced to beg from a young age. Sometimes, physical injuries are inflicted. The money they earn goes into someone else’s pocket,” said Shomendra Dhar, SOS Children Village, an NGO that works to rehabilitate homeless orphan children.
Ramvilas Yadav, another beggar, only begs outside temples and dargahs. He came to Delhi about 15 years ago from Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He stays in Tahirpur in a jhuggi. He says he was a rickshaw puller earlier, but since he damaged his leg in an accident, he has taken to begging.
“People happily give you money outside religious places, so I only go to religious places. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I sit outside temples and on Thursdays I sit outside dargahs. I earn about Rs 300 to Rs 350 on these days.” He travels by bus to different places on different days to increase his chances of earning.
“How can we totally eradicate beggars? If you look closely, most of them are just homeless and unemployed people. I believe giving away alms encourages a beggar to beg. Buying them food is still a lot better than giving away money,” said Aledia.