Games around, beggars made to disappear from Delhi streets

New Delhi, Oct 1 (IANS) You may not be able to spot too many beggars on Delhi streets all of a sudden. As the city decks up for the Commonwealth Games, many people who seek alms, sell knickknacks or are simply destitute on the capital’s streets are finding themselves unwanted.

Close to a gleaming CWG kiosk in south Delhi that has Games mascot Shera saying ‘Our City, Our People’, little Dori is busy selling pencils.

‘They (police) say foreigners would be coming to Delhi, so we need to go away for a month. I think some big festival is happening,’ Rani said. ‘But I will return soon with my friends,’ she added with a grin, as she tried to persuade a couple to buy pencils.

If figures stated by the social welfare department are to be believed, Delhi has nearly 60,000 beggars, with 30 percent below 18 years of age. However, NGOs say the number is over 100,000.

‘The government wants to free the city of beggars. You cannot expect Delhi to be a world-class city with beggars asking for money on the streets,’ said an official of the social welfare department.

Besides 7,000 athletes and delegates, thousands of tourists are expected to descend on Delhi for the Games.

‘Nearly 2,500 beggars are rounded up annually by the department. Delhi traffic police and railways also round up beggars under separate provisions. Those numbers are not reported to us,’ the official said.

The drive to evict beggars from the city was proposed in April last year in view of the Commonwealth Games. The decision drew flak from voluntary organisations and human rights groups, following which the drive became low profile.

A petition filed by an NGO came up for hearing in Delhi High Court on Aug 9 but was postponed to November.

‘The social welfare ministry of Delhi had decided to ‘free Delhi’ of beggars before the CWG, but we faced objections from various rights groups. We had to scale it down actually,’ according the official.

‘We got inputs from our field workers that the beggars were undergoing special training to approach foreigners for alms. Languages were taught in slums also,’ the official added.

The move has drawn flak from voluntary organisations, civil society, NGOs and human rights groups alike.

‘The move is a result of rapid urbanisation. The cities hardly have any space for the marginalised,’ said Amitabh Kundu, urban economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In the absence of any national law against it, the government has been relying on the Bombay Prevention Act of 1959, which bans begging, vending on roads, cleaning vehicles at traffic junctions, singing for money in buses and displaying physical disability to seek alms. It prescribes punishment up to 10 years for those violating the rule.

‘Owing to Delhi’s metropolitan status and availability of opportunities, there is a heavy influx from north Indian states to Delhi as compared to other states,’ an official of the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) told IANS.

Nearly 100,000 below-the-poverty-line people migrate to Delhi annually, says the NIUA report on urban migration.

Voluntary organisations say the move is ending up targeting unskilled workers who come to the capital in search of work.

‘Unskilled workers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan who come here are considered beggars. The real beggars in the capital operate as mafia organisations and are never caught,’ said Paramjeet Kaur, director of ActionAid’s Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan.

ActionAid, an NGO, has been providing free legal aid to the beggars caught since 2002.

‘The homeless cannot be treated as beggars. Sending people forcibly to other cities is against human rights,’ Kaur said.

The social welfare department, however, claims to focus on rehabilitation.

‘A social investigation report is prepared after the detention of a beggar. They get food, clothes and also vocational education. Many are handicapped but we find a job they can do,’ said Manoj Parida, department secretary.

If a beggar is a first-time offender, he is most likely to be released. Repeat offenders are sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.