Amidst ongoing efforts by authorities to make the national capital beggar-free before the Commonwealth Games, social activists say the drive faces a practical problem.
With just eight months left for the mega sporting event, authorities are on their toes to ensure the city is free from beggars before it receives thousands of tourists from around the world.
For this, the authorities are taking the help of a 50-year-old anti-beggary law to sweep off panhandlers from the capital's roads. However, social workers say it is easier said than done.
"You can't just make them vanish from the roads either by arresting them or putting them in shelters. It's practically impossible and lacks vision," says Sanjay Kumar of Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan, an NGO that works for the destitute in the capital.
"How can you accommodate thousands of beggars, most of whom are homeless, in a few shelters or in jails which are already overcrowded," Kumar told PTI.
According to the Social Welfare Department, the estimated number of beggars in Delhi are around 60,000, among them 30 per cent are below 18 years of age, 69.94 per cent are males and 30.06 per cent are females. But NGOs claim the numbers to be more than one lakh.
"Thousands of migrants come to Delhi in search of a livelihood. Some get work, while others are forced to beg. There is no official record of their number or whatsoever," says Anshu Gupta of Goonj, an NGO working for the poor.
"It's poverty that forces beggars to opt for this. You can't sort out the problem only through a law," Gupta said.
Delhi is using the (Bombay) Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which has been adopted by 18 states and authorises the police to detain anyone found begging on the streets.
If found guilty, the person is sent to one of 12 shelters in Delhi, which can accommodate about 2,200 people.
Delhi's Social Welfare Minister Mangat Ram Singhal had announced setting up a dozen of mobile courts for trying beggars.
At present, two such courts are operational and have tried more than 60 persons, according to a senior official in the Social Welfare Department.
"We prepare a social investigation report of those arrested under the beggary Act. We try to find out whether the person had no other means of earning except begging. In most of the cases the beggars are found to be professionals who otherwise could have earned a decent living," he said wishing not to be named.
Activists questioned the very sanctity of the law under which beggars were being arrested.
Harsh Mander, Former IAS officer-turned-social worker who has filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court on police arresting elderly and sick people on charges of begging, said, the poor and homeless continue to live in a state of fear because of the police high-handedness.
"I think there's perhaps an embarrassment about presenting that part of India to a city that is aspiring to be what they call a world class city," he said.
It's like a war against the poor, human rights lawyer Colin Gonsalves said and wanted those coming to the Commonwealth Games to speak out against it.
"I would really like sportsmen from the Western world and people coming for the Commonwealth Games to write letters of protest to our Prime Minister, to Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and say: Please stop this. We don't want you to clean up Delhi for us. We don't mind if people beg," he said.
"The government is terrorising the poor to leave the city. Most of the people who live on the streets depend on seasonal jobs for a living. How can you arrest employed people under charges of beggary? They do hold a job," said Kumar of AAA.
The rationale behind the anti-begging laws arises from a view that there are organised begging mafias which cause nuisance and losses to businesses.
But activists say there are very few reports about begging mafia in the national capital and such cases are exceptional.
They also argue that if police arrests all those found begging, where they will keep them.
"You only have a dozen such shelters for more than a lakh of the unfortunate people who live on begging. First, provide them the shelter and alternative ways to live, before preventing them from their right to live," suggested Gupta.
'Delhi's Anti-Beggar Drive Faces Practical Problem'
Saroj Kumar Pattnaik/New Delhi
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