When Delhi Was Rid of Beggars!
By Maxwell Pereira

A television channel recently exposed the nexus between beggar mafias and rogue doctors, bringing to sharp focus the persistent problem of beggary and its gory dimensions. In vivid detail was exposed the role of unscrupulous medical professionals resorting to a horrifying and unethical practice of amputating healthy limbs and surgically creating deformities for commercial self-gain, at the behest of beggar mafias.

That the social malaise of beggary continues to flourish with impunity in Indian cities is an under statement. It exists much to the disgust, distaste and horror of the community, affecting public health and environmental ambience of city life. It affects tourism too, with the unwelcome picture beggary portrays. While no effective action to eradicate or curb this menace has been forthcoming, social scientists have endeavoured to highlight there is more to it than the blatant attempts by repressive crime control agencies to criminalize a social problem of poverty, destitution, homelessness, underemployment and unemployment in urban slums and ghettos.

Anti-begging laws do exist. Social Welfare Departments (SWD) are tasked with tackling, if not eradicating the menace… and the police assist them in this task. Joint drives are conducted periodically to remove beggars from public places. Those picked up are produced before designated courts, where most secure immediate release on various grounds or assurances. A few get remanded to beggar homes meant for vocational training and rehabilitation. But defeating the objective, their incarceration is never for more than few days - invariably, all get back to their favourite begging spot to haunt and solicit with added vigour.

Some serious effort was made to tackle the menace in the national capital when Delhi High Court on 24 September 2002, directed Delhi administration to clear the city of beggars and hawkers - this time, because they "obstruct the smooth flow of traffic". The court ruled that beggars and homeless people are the ugly face of the nation's capital… who, among other things, caused `road rage'. Coming on the eve of the April 2003 PATA Conference, it perhaps demanded more attention for concerted action against beggars.

Taking cue from the High Court, the then Chief Secretary Shailaja Chandra tasked me as the city's traffic chief for a plan to rid road junctions of beggars. While the 'traffic' arsenal had nothing concrete to target beggars, we came up with the idea of discouraging and penalizing vehicle owners and drivers who patronized beggars and vendors at road intersections.

So we notified the rule - "No motorist shall encourage or indulge in activity detrimental to traffic flows or safety of road users at signalised traffic junctions. Giving alms to beggars or purchasing articles/ wares/ goods from roadside vendors at traffic junctions is an act obstructive to the quick discharge and smooth flow of traffic, and/ or hazardous in nature likely to endanger safety of other road users".

Enforcement of this notification pinched - and was not palatable to NGOs working with street children. We countered effectively the resultant tirade. Our stand that vested interests are commercialising beggary, even to the extent of maiming and dismembering victims kidnapped or recruited for the purpose, was decried by activists waving an old DP crime-branch study finding no role of criminals or mafia behind begging in Delhi. Perhaps the police's inability to expose mafia content behind beggary was used to defend the beggar community as a "distressed people" asking police to 'de-criminalize' begging as "people do not beg out of choice, but out of compulsion".

There is for sure a vast segment of beggars who fall in the category of "distressed people". But I firmly believed in the existence also of beggar mafias to exploit and commercialise the Indians' tendency to gain punya by giving alms. I believed that crime syndicates working behind begging do exist. And no doubt a large number of people are brought into Delhi for begging.

On the flip side, also true - the criminal mafia character behind beggary needed more attention of the police, even while the infrastructure within the SWD be used adequately and effectively 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 top priority should not surprise anyone.

The projection of the 'plight' of those deprived of livelihood by my merciless act of sweeping them off the road with a 'draconian' law, did not hold water - and we won the day, at least for a while. The Delhi public strongly approved our move. Looking back, even if it was for a brief spell, Delhi's roads were clean of beggars - the only time so perhaps, in the last over three decades of my association with the city.

30.08.2006: 750 words: Copyright © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sector-23, Gurgaon-22017Available at: 0124-5111025 /026 : at http://www. maxwellpereira.com and mfjpkamath@gmail.com


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