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Out of sight is not actually out of mind

Last Updated : 05 April 2010, 17:02 IST

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As the Delhi authorities attempt to clear the streets of an estimated 1,00,000 beggars in the run up to the Commonwealth Games, I get the impression that India’s poor are at best an embarrassment to the authorities and sections of the well to do, or, at worst, a damned nuisance. Corporate India seems hell bent on presenting the international media with a happy, smiling ‘Coffee Day’ image of the nation.

I remember someone from the USA once asking me, “What are the Commonwealth games?” Like many others around the world, he had never heard of them. Yet, to the city hosting the event, it is a great opportunity to put its best foot forward and to show the world — well those who know about the games or those who could be bothered to show any interest in them — that their place is a bastion of Shanghai-inspired urban splendour.

Delhi Social Welfare Minister Mangat Ram Singhal said last year that beggary is an offence and can lead to imprisonment for up to 10 years. He also stated that in 2010 the authorities wanted to remove beggars from Delhi. How come he only recently woke up to this? Oh yes, that’s right, it is our old friend the ‘games’. He said that two mobile courts would travel around the city and would ensure that the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1961, is strictly enforced. As a result, beggars are being imprisoned or put into juvenile homes.

Instant

The Delhi High Court has ruled that beggars should be rehabilitated in their native places in coordination with the Delhi government and various states. The mobile courts catch beggars and present them before the court, and subsequently some are being sent to their respective states.

The court recently heard a public interest petition of social activist Harsh Mander, who said that begging should be decriminalised and that if a person is destitute and begs for a living then he or she cannot be treated as a criminal and cannot be arrested or sentenced. Mander also challenged the constitutional validity of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act.

What is happening in Delhi has occurred elsewhere when a city is placed in the international spotlight. Cities become spruced up and beggars and the homeless are taken from the streets and put elsewhere — out of sight, out of mind.

In many places throughout the world, the poorest people and those deprived of their rights are being labelled as nuisances, a burden or, even worse, if they resist, as terrorists. It seem that, in the view of some, certain people in India are holding back ‘progress’, whether they are beggars on the streets of Delhi, or, further afield, such as people in the so-called tribal belt.

Thousands of Indian paramilitary troops and police are now engaged in fighting a war against some of the country’s poorest inhabitants in the tribal belt. According to official figures, nearly 6,000 people have died in the past seven years of fighting, more than half of them civilians. These tribal areas are home to some of the nation’s poorest people. Villages are emptied or are deprived of basic services and amenities, so people are forced out one way or another and the mineral rich forests are open for the mining corporations to enter.

A corporate democracy

But what can we expect? This is a corporate democracy — 21st century style. It is the poor and vulnerable who are usually oppressed in the name of progress and impoverished in the name of prosperity. Of course, all of this is seemingly carried out for their own good.

So, later this year, when I visit Delhi once more, will I suddenly be confused into thinking I am in Singapore, with its clean streets, gleaming buildings, orderly traffic and beggar-free environment? I don’t think so. Even if I venture into the brave new steel and glass worlds on the outskirts, it will still be the same pollution-choked place, with chaotic traffic, grime laden buildings and, dare I say it — beggars.

Some think, like certain figures in Delhi, that India’s problems can be airbrushed aside with the stroke of a court order or two, a media image makeover or by repressive actions. The poor have become an embarrassment to some who have fallen under the mesmerising spell cast by the mainstream media, with its notion that the country is surging headlong towards a Barristo-drinking, Wills Life Style inspired bright new future.
Perhaps a reality check is now required. Maybe it’s time for some to wake up and smell the coffee.

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Published 05 April 2010, 17:02 IST

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