NEW DELHI — Beggars are an ancient tradition in India's cities as common as free-range cattle and as old as the continent. The Lord Buddha himself begged for food.
But New Delhi, once teeming with beggars tapping on car windows and asking for handouts, is trying to change its image with a simple traffic rule. Under the new law, which went into effect earlier this month, motorists who impede the flow of traffic by giving beggars and street vendors money at stoplights are fined 100 rupees ($2). As a result, many of the city's 1.1 million indigents, including 500,000 child street workers, are moving off the streets.
The new law may achieve what Indian officials not to mention tourist operators have dreamed of for decades. But such change won't come without a raucous debate about India's self-image and its traditional values of compassion.
Some argue that the law pushes away beggars without helping them find alternative means of survival. Others applaud the move, saying that begging is the bane of India, a stereotype that should be vigorously discouraged, particularly in the nation's capital.
"People from foreign countries think that India is a country of beggars," says Maxwell Pereira, New Delhi's police chief, who created the new rule. "I want to dispel that image ... Begging in India can be controlled, and charity can be channeled in the right way."
The tough-talking, silver-haired Mr. Pereira says he grew tired of hearing complaints from motorists and excuses from other city departments charged with handling Delhi's vagrant population. "My priority is keeping the traffic flow moving, so if you are going to indulge in this act of encouraging presence of people who obstruct that traffic flow whether they are beggars or vendors or vagrants then you will be punished."
The new traffic ordinance, if it succeeds, is likely to become a model for other big cities, from Mumbai to Calcutta to Bangalore. Already, Pereira says, the number of motorists giving alms has dropped. Some beggars are relocating to other prime begging locations, such as temples or mosques; others are returning to their home villages.
A long line of Indian leaders and bureaucrats before Pereira have attempted to tackle the problem. In 1959, state leaders in Bombay, now called Mumbai, banned begging outright, and several cities including New Delhi followed suit shortly afterward.
But few cities have the resources to arrest thousands of rural migrants, let alone prosecute, incarcerate, or rehabilitate them. Instead a constant demand for cheap labor from unskilled street sweepers and garbage pickers to carpenters and masons continues to draw a steady stream of Indian villagers to urban centers. Upon arrival, many find they lack skills for those jobs and turn to begging.
Reaction to the new traffic ordinance has been mostly positive from Delhi drivers. "It's a good thing," says Romald Yacub, a professional chauffeur. "Beggars slow down traffic. Children, especially, shouldn't be taught to beg. And it would be better if these people found better jobs."
Some bureaucrats also support the new rule, especially those with the Social Welfare Department, the lead agency tasked with enforcing antibegging laws.
"It helps us in two ways: First, we can now deal with the problem of beggars who pose as hawkers at traffic junctions, which we couldn't before," says K.J.R. Burman, joint director of the Social Welfare Department. "Second, the rule [stops] those who encourage the problem, those who give money."
But Rahesh Kumar, a 14-year old newspaper seller from the poverty-stricken state of Bihar, has a different view. "I am not a thief, and I do not beg, so why should I not be allowed to sell newspapers," he asks. In any case, he hasn't stopped selling papers, but simply moved to a street corner without traffic policemen. "For me, there is no other way of getting money."
Relatively few of New Delhi's poor migrants restrict themselves to asking for alms. Many street-workers sell boxes of facial tissues or glossy magazines. Others polish windows or wave cans of burning incense into car windows, hoping for the clink of a few rupees in their pockets. Still others, especially children, gather plastic bags, paper, and bits of metal for recycling.
Some street vendors complain that the new traffic rule is just another excuse for traffic cops to beat them up or demand money. Ram Babu, a newspaper seller from Patna, Bihar, says he was picked up two days ago by a couple plain clothes policemen and verbally harassed.
"One of them pretended to make a call on his cellphone, and then said, 'Somebody is going to come here and beat you up,'" recalls the 18-year-old. "They were just trying to scare us, so we wouldn't visit that corner anymore. Finally, I told them I don't sell at this corner, I'm just waiting for a bus. One of them said, 'If I see you again, I'll kill you.' "
Those organizations that work with the poor say that simply banning begging and street vending is like fighting poverty by criminalizing poor people. Unless the government helps them find alternatives, they will simply force these people into more dangerous, or even criminal jobs.
Like many residents of Delhi, Mr. Burman says that simply banning begging without helping people find jobs isn't going to deal with the problem in the long run. "Begging is a social problem," he says. "We can't keep it behind the curtain."
"Look, giving alms is not a new concept in India," says Sanjay Gupta, director of a non-profit agency called Childhood Enhancement Through Training and Action. "These children are begging or selling magazines because there is a market for it. People want to give alms or help the poor on an individual level, because that is how you make up for past sins." He smiles. "You can't change that kind of cultural thing overnight."