Delhi’s move to relocate them can work only if there’s a central fund for the purpose, says Shantanu Guha Ray
OF ALL the beautification projects that obsess the organisers of the 19th Commonwealth Games these days, this one could prove to be the ugliest. It involves the “repatriation” of Delhi’s 120,000-odd beggars to their “parent states”, which they had left for slightly better conditions. But now Delhi’s Chief Secretary Rakesh Mehta wants them out, and fast —certainly much before October when the Games kick off.
Delhi’s notoriously rough and inefficient mobile anti-begging squads are already in battle formation. (It is well known that to keep their jobs the squads habitually pick up anyone in rags, even though s/he may not be begging). In recent months these units have rounded up 224 alleged beggars, and locked up 124 of them in one of 12 homes for the destitute — all of which are bursting at their seams. A 13th home is being planned for transgenders and eunuchs. By April the beautifiers also expect to have a 24-hour toll-free Beggar Hotline in place — for the city that a survey last week pronounced as the country’s most livable.
Mehta’s office recently wrote to ten state governments saying: “In view of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games public begging needs to be contained strictly.” Of these, Uttar Pradesh has the highest percentage of beggars (27) followed by Bihar (17.10), Haryana (7.17), West Bengal (5.72) and Rajasthan (5.67). Mehta’s letter is a follow-up to the Delhi High Court ruling on a PIL filed by social activist Harsh Mander, who urged the Delhi government to coordinate closely with the states to ensure the beggars’ proper rehabilitation.
But is it possible this will happen now, if it hasn’t so far? Consider also that there is nothing in the Indian statute that outlaws the soliciting of alms. As a result the Delhi government has been forced to invoke the 1959 Bombay Prevention of Begging Act — that prohibits all manner of soliciting — and extend its scope to include Delhi in its ambit. Only, the economics are not working for it. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati even refused to react to the letter, her confidants demanding proper “authentication” of the beggars. A tall order, considering the Delhi University study that Mehta quotes in his letter is nearly four years old. Nobody in the Delhi government has ever cared to identify all the beggars in the city, not to mention updating the statistics.
Besides, former UTI chairman and SEBI head S Damodaran feels the Delhi government could easily be outdone, on account of the loose cash economy on which the beggar’s calling relies. On an average, a beggar in Delhi earns up to Rs 200 per day — nearly half of which must be handed over to the middlemen who fix the locations. Begging is believed to generate over Rs 46 lakh monthly and, says Damodaran, the “gravy train” can’t be stopped overnight. And he adds: “All beggars may not have bank accounts, but private money lenders work closely with them. The process cannot evaporate overnight just because beggars have been asked to leave.”
Noted economist Bibek Debroy fully endorses this view. No state government in India has any mechanism to deal with the gargantuan problem. While the West Bengal government did indicate that it was not averse to complying with Delhi’s request, it added hastily that this couldn’t be done in a hurry. For, the state itself is saddled with over 75,000 beggars. “Moreover, how will we know that all Bengalispeaking beggars in Delhi are from West Bengal and not from Bangladesh?” asks West Bengal Home Secretary Ashok Mohan Chakrabarti. For the record, he is waiting for the state social welfare department to work out a rehabilitation scheme. But in reality, one suspects this is simply a convenient ploy to buy time.
As Debroy rightly points out, the only way the problem can be solved is by allocating special funds for the purpose. “Someone should actually talk of a central pool, a budget here, because it’s a process of relocating the landless,” argues Debroy, adding: “Sweeping the poor under the carpet will not help. The Delhi government should seek a more modern way of addressing a centuriesold problem.” And it would have to be humane.