Beggars the unwanted face of Games' city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

Orphan Muhammed Alam, 10, and his aunt and uncle arrived in Delhi two weeks ago.

They left their village in Bihar, India's poorest state, in the hope of earning a little more money. His aunt found a job ironing clothes and Alam, whose polio has left him with a deformed leg and a limp, begs.

Sitting at the roadside at a noisy intersection for five to six hours, Alam earns between 10 and 20 rupees (HK$2-HK$4) a day. The rest of the time he spends at home, 'in that park over there'. He has not been to school since he was seven, he says, his small face blank.

According to a survey by Delhi University conducted for the Department for Social Welfare, of the 58,570 beggars counted in the city's 134 wards and at every traffic intersection and temple, about a third were children.

Though Alam's wage is average for a child beggar, adults can earn much more.

The survey interviewed 5,003 beggars. Nearly half the adults earned between 50 and 100 rupees a day; not much lower than that earned by many labourers and auto-rickshaw drivers. About 3 per cent said they earned 100 to 500 rupees a day.

The survey was commissioned to help the government find ways to rid Delhi of beggars in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Delhi's dynamic image as host to world athletes is at odds with its dilapidated infrastructure, grimy roads and chaotic markets - but most of all with its wretched-looking beggars, who tap on car windows at almost every traffic light asking for paisa, chapatti, khana (cash, bread, food).

After ruling that Delhi should be cleared of its omnipresent monkeys and roadside snack sellers, the Delhi High Court in February gave local authorities a much less controversial order: clear the streets of beggars.

'The menace of beggary in the national capital of Delhi has been of concern to all, especially in view of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in 2010,' wrote Sneh Tandon, author of the survey's report.

The report suggests the government should develop a comprehensive policy on begging, including educating the public about the 'evils of almsgiving, which ... promotes parasites in the society and demotivates them from doing hard work'.

But a closer look at the figures reveal the intractable nature of begging in India, which is rooted in structural injustices for which there is no quick cure, rather than the fault of individuals.

A third of adult beggars are disabled; 88 per cent said they had no skills; most had come from other parts of India - especially the impoverished states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh - and had taken up begging because they could not find work.

'The only way to deal with this problem is at the structural level,' said Indu Prakash Singh, of anti-poverty agency ActionAid. 'The government wants to beautify Delhi and throw all the ugliness out, but this is no solution.'

But the report did make one suggestion he approved of: to decriminalise begging.

Delhi comes under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which means anyone found begging can be arrested and taken before the medieval-sounding beggar court.

Major findings of the survey on beggars

1 Begging is banned in Delhi but there are about 58,000 beggars in the capital.

2 Every year about 2,600 beggars are arrested and taken before the Beggar Court.

3 There are 10 beggar homes in Delhi with a capacity for 3,600 inmates.

4 Of 3,526 adult beggars interviewed, more than 3,000 were illiterate.