Beggar Mafias!
By Maxwell Pereira
maxwelpereir@gmail.com

The Delhi Government under chief secretary Shailaja Chandra was the only time when some serious effort was made to tackle effectively the beggar menace in the national capital. The social welfare department whose baby it is to manage beggars had utterly failed despite a law on anti-beggary and adequate beggar homes in position for incarceration and rehabilitation, and police backup available at the drop of a hat when sought. No amount of court interventions and High Court directives had helped either.

Then on 24 September 2002, the Delhi High Court again directed Delhi administration to clear the capital city of beggars and hawkers as they `obstruct the smooth flow of traffic'. The order came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) petition that described beggars and homeless people as the `ugly face of the nation's capital' and as people who, among other things, caused `road rage'.

Taking cue from the High Court, Ms Chandra latched on to me as the city’s then traffic chief to come up with a workable plan that could rid our road junctions of beggars. While I had nothing in the ‘traffic’ arsenal to target beggars, the traffic police could definitely target those vehicle owners and drivers who patronized begging and vending on the road – and that’s what we did by invoking the powers to issue direction to regulate road traffic etc - to ban giving of alms and vending activity at road junctions under pain of fine. The Traffic Police notification provided for the imposition of a fine on motorists who gave money to beggars or bought things from vendors at road junctions.

This was seen as an aggressive approach against beggary. And I was quoted critically as how beggary is a menace that "flourishes with impunity in the streets of Delhi much to the disgust, distaste and horror of the community at large. The first thing every tourist learns about India is that it is a land of beggars."

I am an avid supporter of the NGO movement and find laudable the work they do in varied areas of deprivation and discrimination. But the effective enforcement of the new rule was pinching and not palatable to the NGOs working in the field of street children. The entire NGO world descended on me like a ton of bricks. I was constrained to pick up the gauntlet to face the tirade against the traffic police move, and face the NGO music in different fora – panel discussions, conferences and jan-sunwaiis. The plight of those deprived of their livelihood by my merciless act of sweeping them off the road with a draconian law was thrashed threadbare - under intense media scrutiny.

The people of Delhi though, strongly approved our move and stood by us. The result, within days Delhi’s roads were clean of beggars, enough even to attract the international media to carry India’s this step against beggars to their own distant lands across continents and oceans.

As part of the debate while facing the NGO onslaught, when I insisted that there was a vested interest commercialising beggary through maiming and dismemberment of victims kidnapped or recruited for the purpose, an old Delhi Police crime branch study was waved in my face claiming that the study did not find any role of criminals or mafia operating behind begging in Delhi. Delhi Police’s inability to expose the mafia content behind beggary was used by Indu Prakash Singh, the director of Ashray Adhikaar Abhiyan to defend beggar community as a “distressed people” and that the police should decriminalize begging – especially since “people do not beg out of choice, but out of compulsion. How can the government say it is an organized crime?"

I am sure there is a vast segment of beggars who fall in the category described by the NGOs as “distressed people”. But I firmly believed in the existence of beggar mafias that exploit and commercialise the Indians’ tendency to gain punya by giving alms. That crime syndicates working behind begging do exist. And no doubt a large number of people are brought into Delhi for begging. I also remember reading how Professor BB Pande of Delhi University’s Law Faculty was then quoted saying there were seven gangs who controlled organized begging in the city.

True, the criminal mafia character behind beggary needed more attention of the police, even while the infrastructure created within social welfare department needed to have been put to adequate and effective use to fight the beggar menace sincerely. Given the pressures and list of priorities the police are saddled with, that beggars do not come anywhere near the top priority should not surprise anyone.

Even so, the gory expose over the weekend by the CNN-IBN TV channel of a beggar-doctor mafia is incomprehensible. That a beggar mafia exists and it tortures and maims people to make them beg. And there are doctors too who help the mafia by amputating the limbs of healthy people. The channel claimed there are more than 12,000 handicapped beggars in Delhi alone. And it is doctors like the ones they captured on sting camera that help the beggar mafia to mutilate, terrorise and live off the beggars of the city – a fact, confirmed by beggars themselves.

In the absence of an aggrieved complainant and “an act in furtherance of the stated intention” it is unfortunate that the ‘exposed’ doctors are likely to go scot free… infuriating even further and shocking people’s conscience more. Much sensation, that is all the channel has achieved. Had it consulted its own legal advisors how to go about it so the perpetrators could be effectively punished, perhaps the expose could have been better handled. But then the channel has achieved its objective of ratings. The rest of course, they expect, is up to the police - with or without evidence!

July 31, 2006: 950 words: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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