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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 Mian RidgeCorrespondent / March 4, 2008

Crackdown: New Delhi is now enforcing its ban on begging.

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New Delhi

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.

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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.

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.