New Delhi cleanup sends in the Beggar Raid Teams

To transform itself into a 'world-class city,' India's capital is locking up panhandlers.

By , Correspondent

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    Crackdown: New Delhi is now enforcing its ban on begging.
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    Off to jail: Shankar, a beggar in New Delhi, tries unsuccessfully to avoid arrest. Authorities are taking beggars off the streets in an effort to create a "world-class city."
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    Alms: Beggars in New Delhi benefit from India's ancient custom of alms-giving, still practiced today.
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Paltu frantically tries to hide a coin in his clothing. The young man has been begging outside a temple in New Delhi, where panhandling is illegal. And police have just seen him accept 1 rupee (about $0.03) from a passerby.

As they swoop down, Paltu begs the police not to lock him up. "I can't get any work," he cries, gesturing at the stumps of his legs. But the police force Paltu, who walks on his hands, into a van with grilled windows. He moves obediently to a seat at the back, quietly weeping.

Though begging has been illegal in India's capital since 1960, it has mostly been tolerated. Across India, the ancient custom of giving alms, especially near places of worship, remains an important part of many peoples' lives.

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In 2010, however, New Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games, and authorities are trying to transform the capital into the "world-class city" promised in glitzy ads. Many of their efforts are controversial, from rounding up stray cows – regarded as sacred by Hindus – to building a mammoth games "village" on the banks of the Yamuna River, which nonprofit organizations say may precipitate an environmental disaster.

But nothing is quite so shocking as New Delhi's crackdown on its beggars. "This is a criminalization of poverty," says Anand Kumar, a lawyer with the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network. "Many of these people have no option but to beg. To arrest them without even providing the infrastructure that guarantees them the most basic needs is appalling."

City populations swell

The government has made some efforts to tackle the root causes of begging, such as an exodus of rural poor to the cities.

According to a recent survey by Delhi University, most beggars in New Delhi came to the city from impoverished rural areas in search of work. By 2030, India's urban population is expected to have swelled from 285 million to 575 million – an increase of about the size of America's population. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly referred to the "rural" population.]

In the Feb. 29 budget, the government planned to waive more than $15 billion dollars of loans to small farmers.

Although some nongovernmental organizations work with beggars and homeless people in Indian cities, providing food, shelter, and vocational training that might lead to employment, their contribution is a drop in the ocean of Indian poverty. Some 260 million of the Indian population of 1.1 billion people exist on less than $1 a day. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of Indians living on less than $1 a day.]

Beggars rounded up

But right now, Delhi's government has a cleanup operation on its hands. The beggar roundup is being organized by the city's Social Welfare Department. Every morning, it dispatches nine vans from its Beggar Raid Team. Each carries three plainclothes men, who scan the crowded streets of bullock carts, cows, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, newspaper hawkers, and stray dogs for ragged people pleading for money.

"Since the end of last year, we've been told to increase the numbers we arrest," says Anand Pandey, a civil servant known as a "raid officer," who is in charge of the team that just caught Paltu, as he peers out the window. "Generally we observe them from a distance and then try to catch them red-handed."

Warrants are not necessary for arresting beggars. Once picked up, they are tried in the city's Beggars' Court. Those whom Mr. Pandey calls "first-time offenders" often go free with a warning. Others are incarcerated until friends or family scrape together the money to pay their bail of about 3,000 rupees (about $75). Many are locked up in "beggars' homes" – dedicated jails – for a minimum of one year and a maximum of 10, the latter being the same penalty given for violent robberies. If they are "blind, a cripple or otherwise incurably helpless," according to the law, beggars can be locked up for life.

After Paltu's arrest, the police home in on an elderly man in a green turban and filthy white shirt begging at the temple who later gives his name as Shankar. He kicks and screams as the police wrestle him to the ground, where he lies moaning and refusing to move.

A woman stops to remonstrate with police: "How can you do this to a human being outside a holy place?"

The police wait until she has disappeared into the temple before lifting Shankar into the van, where he sits beside Paltu in silence. "Sometimes the crowd gets aggressive and we have to give up and leave," says Pandey.

A security guard at the temple, however, urges the police on. "Take them all away; they mess up the temple," he shouts, shaking his stick as the van drives away.

His attitude is perhaps more typical. While many people in the capital give money to beggars, there has been no public outcry over the move to lock them up.

Rags to riches?

On occasion, Pandey says, he has arrested beggars carrying huge sums of money. Local newspapers often print stories about the lucrative business of begging and the criminal gangs that mastermind panhandling in the capital. But the Delhi University report found that most beggars made between 50 and 100 rupees (about $1.25 and $2.50) a day.

"There may be a handful of beggars that make larger sums of money, but in our experience people are forced into begging by poverty and in poverty they remain," says Indu Prakash Singh of Actionaid, a nonprofit activist aid group that is lobbying the government to provide legal representation for arrested beggars.

Later in the journey, Pandey says he acknowledges that many of the beggars he rounds up have no choice but to beg. "But we have to work, too," he adds, "and this is our job."

Most of the men now sitting in the van seem to know begging is illegal, because they deny that this is how they live.

Not so for Mahindra, a toothless, terrified-looking man who is bundled into the van clutching a morsel of bread. "My food! My food! Give me my food," he cries, pointing at a dirty sack containing pieces of half-eaten fruit.

The old man, who says he used to work as a servant in a house in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, admits to begging every day. "I'm too old to work so this is how I survive," he tells Pandey. "I didn't know begging was an offense."

"I beg during the day and sleep in a shelter at night, otherwise they will steal my shoes," he goes on, pointing at his tattered plastic sandals.

Pandey tells him he will be given food and shelter where he is going. Mahindra nods. "But I want my freedom," he says.

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