No chance of farewell to alms

On the streets: Delhi is short of infrastructure to take care of beggars

Awaiting humane rehabilitation, thousands of beggars – including children, women and disabled people – hit Delhi streets daily to survive in a city which has no time to stop and take care of them.

Ahead of the Commonwealth Games, there was a conspicuous reduction in the number of beggars seeking alms at traffic signals and commercial hubs like Connaught Place, but the one-time effort of government agencies seems to have now faded away.

The national capital which aims to be a smart city seems abysmally short of infrastructure and ideas on how to take care of people who beg and live on the streets.

In some pockets in central and south Delhi, according to Delhi government officials, there are suspected beggary syndicates in which a contractor positions kids for begging during the day and carries them back home after the day’s work.

The kids or other beggars get their daily “wage” from the contractor.

“A child beggar rescued by one of our teams from Green Park told us that he lives in Badarpur but gets dropped daily at Green Park by the contractor,” says an official.

Begging means big money and employment for some and that is why efforts to rehabilitate or enforce the anti-begging laws have not been very successful, says an NGO worker.

While there are many genuinely sick and helpless people who survive as beggars, there also are 'professionals' in the field who pester tourists and motorists to collect their daily 'income' so that they can fund their dose of drugs and liquor, he says.

A parking lot attendant near state emporia opposite Rivoli cinema in Connaught Place alleges that some beggars even indulge in prostitution after dark.

There is no official figure on the number of beggars in Delhi. The social welfare department of the Delhi government and Delhi Police only maintain details of the number of beggars rounded up and sent to the welfare centres.

“There is no consolidated data or survey to give an exact figure on beggars,” says Social Welfare Director Garima Gupta.

Despite a stringent begging prevention law, the inadequacies of the system appear to have dwarfed all efforts to implement it and give a respectable life to those forced to seek alms.

The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 was extended to Delhi in 1960 and it has provisions which even allow detention or arrest of beggars for a period of 10 years if the convicted beggar is found begging for the second or subsequent time.

There are 11 certified custodial/residential institutions for beggars in the city with a total capacity of  2,180 inmates. But unlike night shelters, homes for beggars are far from overflowing.

“On an average, 50-60 beggars are rounded up every month and presented before the court for hearing their case and ordering detention at residential institutions if proved that he or she was found begging,” says a social welfare department official.

Official wrangles

In official circles, a multiplicity of agencies and differences over classification of beggars, destitutes and the homeless prevent effective rehabilitation of people who live on the streets.  

According to an NGO volunteer, if one government agency says that a particular person is a homeless, the other would claim he or she is a beggar, and yet another would refuse to take care of him or her as it deals only with mentally retarded people. 

If a person begs for a few hours in a day and lives on the pavement, he would probably not receive any help or face any action from social welfare department till they actually catch him begging and carrying money.

For officials of this department it is easy to classify him as an encroacher who needs to be shifted by the civic agency. 

Beggars can be rounded up, for presenting them before a magistrate, by both anti-begging squad teams and police. Officials of both these departments complain of manpower shortage and resource crunch.

Social Welfare director Gupta says, “Ever since I joined the department two months ago, I have taken up the matter with Delhi Police chief for deputing 20 policemen for assisting raid teams.”

“These are sanctioned deputation posts which are vacant for long. The policemen are needed for accompanying our officials and frisking the persons rounded up,” she says.

As per section 4 of the Begging Prevention Act, any police officer or other authorised person may arrest without warrant anyone found begging. The arrested person is then produced in court.

Section 5, provides for a summary inquiry by a metropolitan magistrate  appointed under the Act, and detention.

In addition to the regular beggar court at Kingsway Camp, two mobile beggar courts were started in 2009.

These mobile courts enable quick decisions as the money collected through begging is immediately presented before these magistrates as evidence.

If the court is not satisfied that a person was found begging, it orders him or her to be released.

Sources say some “busy” beggars are willing to pay defence lawyers up to Rs 2,000-3,000 a hearing to ensure that they get back to work fast after detention.

Social welfare department and police officers admit the presence of begging syndicates but blame systemic shortcomings for failure to check abuse of children by them.

“There are no beggar homes for kids below the age of five. At times, even the courts get confused when we present a child at a hearing on begging,” says an official.

Deputy Commissioner of Police (Railways) Sanjay Bhatia says need-based ac
tion is taken when beggars are seen near railway and Metro stations.

“We hand them over to the Delhi government authorities for rehabilitation,” he says.
But an official who does not wish to be named says, “The primary task of police is crime prevention and maintaining law and order. A stressed force cannot be expected to divert too much of its resources for running after beggars.”

Bhatia says, “The system should be such that beggars sent to government homes do not come back.”

Social Cure

Social activist Kapil Chawla says, “All agencies have to work in tandem. There cannot be a quick-fix solution to check begging. There has to be a social cure so that the beggars feel content in government homes and do not feel the urge to come out again to start seeking alms.”

The welfare system needs to be more developed, he says.

“Alm seekers or beggars can also be seen in cities like Seattle in the US. But in the West there is no tolerance for begging in core areas. In Delhi, at least Connaught Place should be without any beggars, drug addicts or homeless,” says Chawla.

A police officer even suggests offering some sort of dole to keep beggars away from coming on to the roads.

“Give them some cash incentive and equip them with the skill to earn a living,” says a police officer.

But he says one can never say how many would actually want to earn a respectable living as some beggars manage to collect up to Rs 1,000-1,500 a day which is not possible in a small time vocation.

Sources in social welfare department say the custodial/residential institutions for beggars are supposed to have provisions for vocational training and counselling but in reality not much is happening.

According to a report of the department’s north Delhi-based Reception-cum-Classification Centre – where apprehended beggars are lodged during the pendency of hearing before a magistrate – 55 beggars were rounded up and brought there in October.

“None of these beggars were rounded up by the 10 squads under the district social welfare officers or policemen of any police station,” says an official.

“At the end of October, 17 such beggars were left after the other were either released or sent to detention homes,” says an official.

According to an official, medical facilities are provided to beggars while they are lodged at the classification centre.

Government-run homes, where the apprehended beggars may be sent next, also provide food, medical care, recreation, health, vocational training and counselling to wean them away from begging.

Though there is shortage of staff at various levels, the department of social welfare has made 13 anti-begging squads.

Ten squads are under the district social welfare  officers, two attached with the two mobile courts, and one squad with the classification centre at Kingsway Camp.

Officials claim the squads are regularly rounding up the beggars, but their impact appears to be very limited.

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