We’re sort of immune to them. Their faces, their pleas, their sob stories. Yet, beggars generate the most diverse emotions in us: sympathy, pity, scare, sneer, disrespect. Often quoted as one of civilization’s oldest professions, beggary rarely receives the legislative cover ‘professions’ usually get.

Photo: Varupi Jain Ask Braj Nath Sahni, who has been begging in front of Delhi’s famous Hanuman Mandir for a few months now. “While I was in Bihar, I had to get one of my legs amputated following an injury. This was followed by a stomach tumour. My physical ailments affected my vocation as a mechanic for torch-lights and stoves to the extent that I was left with no choice but to beg. I came to Delhi for treatment but with one leg and half-paralysed arms, I can do little other than beg. This is my home. I live and sleep anywhere in the vicinity where I find space and no policemen. The policemen often chase us away from wherever we sleep. We do not exactly know if and where we are supposed to exist. Moving to any other locality within Delhi would mean no food for me. Hanuman Mandir has generous devotees unlike any other place,” he offers with a half-smile.

Radha’s biography has been rather chequered as well. She grew up as an orphan beggar-child at Hanuman Mandir, married a fellow-beggar in order to avoid being sneered at (“love marriage” as she describes it), has 2 daughters and is now a widow. “One of my daughters smokes brown-sugar and visits me once in a while. The other daughter is at a boarding school at Mussourie. I have to put together her tuition fee, which I have somehow managed until now. I can stitch ladies' garments. But the police will not allow me to operate a sewing machine here. I could even work as a maid-servant at people’s houses. However, most people want some sort of proof of residence and background, which people like me cannot provide,” offers Radha with a face, which, despite everything, is confident.

So are the faces of the children housed at the Prayas Institute of Juvenile Justice. Prayas, an NGO working for the fulfillment of the basic needs of the destitute street and neglected children, has established centres around Delhi with one at Hanuman Mandir. The centre coordinator, caretaker or even police officials bring destitute street children to the centres. At the Hanuman Mandir centre, for instance, these children are trained to live a scheduled life which includes eating, sleeping, playing, studying and of course no begging and no stealing. Once these children are acclimatized to this lifestyle, they are sent to Prayas headquarters at Jahagirpuri, where they attend formal school.

“The backgrounds of the children staying at these centres are diverse. A 7-year-old child spends the day at the centre and returns home only to sleep. He enjoys the playful surroundings of the centre. He does not come home during the day even if his parents insist. Another child, Bunty, came to the centre when he was five years old. Now he is fifteen. He has grown up here,” maintains the caretaker of the centre, Arvind. “Both my biological parents have remarried and so I have 2 stepparents. However, I do not talk to any of them even when they visit me. My father still drinks and bashes up my mother. While I was still at home, he used to beat me as well,” offers Bunty.

"The policemen often chase us away from wherever we sleep. We do not exactly know if and where we are supposed to exist".
While Prayas’ effort in rehabilitating beggar and other street-children is commendable, a separate assessment of the need for begging itself is necessary. According to Rajinder Prasad, who is a pavement necklace seller at Hanuman Mandir, “only about 5% of the beggars are really needy. Quite a few of the rest smoke away drugs worth Rs. 250-300 almost every day. They are the ones to be put behind bars. However, the police chase away all beggars like a herd of cattle. Some of these beggars are seriously injured or sick.”

Does the law differentiate between those with a pressing need to beg, and others who only maintain this pretense? Not really. Delhi Police, for instance, offered the argument that beggars and street vendors are accident hazards at road junctions. They distract the drivers with their activities. People inside the vehicles block the traffic behind them while they offer alms and buy goods at traffic signals.

Delhi traffic police thus introduced an ordinance announcing that motorists and commuters doling out alms to beggars or buying goods from vendors at traffic intersections would be fined. According to the ordinance, "no motorist shall encourage or indulge in any activity detrimental to traffic flow or safety of road users - specifically at signalised traffic road junctions and up to a distance of 100 meters on each approaching arm from the centre of the junction”. Violation of this direction is attracted by Rule 22(a) of Rules of the Road Regulations, 1989 (framed under section 118 of the central Motor Vehicles Act - 1988) punishable under sec.177 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988 entailing a fine of Rs. 100 for first offence and Rs. 300 for second or subsequent offences. This ordinance is in force since 6 September 2002 (see the official web-site http://www.delhitrafficpolice.nic.in/art19.htm ).

While ensuring smooth flow of traffic is highly desirable, the extent to which this traffic ordinance is socially justified remains debatable. One could argue that the law only deals with the symptoms of the problem of beggary (that too only at traffic signals!), not with its causes. By shooing them off the traffic signals, the Traffic Police can’t wish the beggars away. They remain; their problems remain; they still do not have any alternate means of subsistence. Second, the law puts beggars (many of whom are also thieves) and vendors on the same platform. Vendors do not beg, they do not steal, so why should they not be allowed to earn their living?

According to a representative of the Social Welfare department of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, laws related to begging are a State subject and not a Central one. Thus, there is no Central Act ‘regulating’ beggary. In Delhi, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA) is already in force. According to this law, begging, vending on roads, cleaning vehicles at traffic junctions, singing in buses and displaying disability for alms are all unlawful. If penalised under this law, one is sent to a special beggar court and bailed out only after paying Rs 500 – 1000.

Begging raises questions that peer into the heart of social security and human dignity. While common people, in order to earn punya, may donate generously to one-armed people hiding the other arm in their shirts, the police kick and prick lepers and disabled beggars not even capable of moving an inch. Only when the establishment diversifies its laws to target various forms of begging-related activities differently and works together with NGOs to rehabilitate truly incapacitated persons, significant change will take place.