Games that we play with the commons

“In the urban third world, poor people dread high profile international events—conferences, dignitary visits, sporting events, beauty contests, and international festivals—that prompt authorities to launch crusades to clean up the city.”
— ‘Planet of Slums’, Mike Davis

Shanti Devi, 72, has spent 30 years outside the Hanuman temple in Connaught place in the heart of the national capital.

A native of Lakhi Sarai, Purani Bazar near Patna, she knows a majority of the visitors at the temple by name.

Brawls over langar, eight-year-olds turning to cocaine, college students shooting hunger photographs, beggars bribing police constables, NGO workers with bundles of questionnaires, SMS alerts of a possible raid by the anti-begging squad… the septuagenarian has seen it all. “Apna khana peena, dawa daru, sab yahen se hai,” says Shanti Devi, who worked as construction labourer for three years and then at a Delhi-based NGO for two months, before turning to begging.

But trouble is lurking. Delhi is hosting the Commonwealth Games in October and the authorities are weeding out beggars from the city. In this drive the law is armed with the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA), 1959. Active in 18 states, the law was extended to Delhi in 1960. This is the law that helps middle class and affluent Delhi to get over its moral dilemma every time a beggar thrusts his hand at traffic stops.

A mere ten minutes’ drive from the Hanuman Mandir is the office of the Department of Social Welfare, where officials are discussing the progress made by mobile courts, introduced in late 2009, to fast-track cases against beggars prosecuted under the vintage law.

These courts are in addition to the beggars’ court at Kingsway camp near DU’s North Campus. The courts, operating from hired vans, carry police constables and social welfare officers. (See next page). First-time offenders are either released after a warning or are detained in one of the 12 certified institutions (known as beggars’ homes among officials and ‘sewa kothi’ by beggars) for a period varying between one and three years.

Detention period is seven to 10 years for those convicted for a second or subsequent time.

Nearly 2,600 beggars are arrested and produced in such courts in Delhi every year. This year, till April, two mobile courts prosecuted more than 300 beggars, sending 170 of them to the 12 institutions.

S A Awaradi, director, department of social welfare (DSW)in the  Delhi goverrnment says they are looking at other methods including “open homes” and increasing the number of anti-begging squads. “A survey we ordered found that more than 60 percent of Delhi’s 60,000 beggars are from other states. If somehow we can send them back to their home state, we can surely tackle the issue,” he says.

But there are many who question this approach. Mohammad Tarique, a coordinator with Koshish, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) field action project on the destitute, says: “The government might lock them up during the Games, but that will not solve the larger issue.”

Delhi-based social activist Harsh Mander filed a writ petition in July 2009 challenging the  constitutionality of the BPBA. “Section 2 of the Act makes begging per se a crime. It violates sections 14, 19 and 21 of the constitution,” says Mander. “It is because of these sections in the Act that professional beggars are hardly caught. The squads end up arresting the destitute and those selling articles at traffic intersections. How can you call them beggars?” he asks.

A five-member committee appointed by the Bombay High Court in 1990 to assess the condition of beggars arrived at the same conclusions. The members visited beggars’ homes and collected data on facilities in these places. The members witnessed raids and court hearings and concluded that the squads arrested those they found in dirty clothes and wandering rather than those who were begging. “There are no criteria to decide as to who is a beggar, who is sick, physically handicapped or in need of economic help,” said the committee report.

The committee also recommended discontinuing the institution of the beggars’ court. “About 100 cases are disposed of in less than 15 minutes. When new cases came up, the judge just glanced at them and remanded them to custody.”

Agrees Raj Mangal Prasad, chairman of the Child Welfare Committee (CWC), which tries children caught begging in Delhi. “These allegations are not baseless,” admits Prasad, who headed Pratidhi, a Delhi-based NGO working for the rights of homeless, before joining CWC.

The condition of the beggars’ homes, experts say, is another reason why Delhi has not been able to tackle the issue. There are 12 beggars’ homes in the capital that can house 3,600.

Ashok, 40, was arrested from near the Sai Baba temple on Lodhi Road in August 2008. He was sent to the Lampur Beggars Home. In March that year, eight inmates had died in the home. An inquiry conducted by the Narela sub-divisional magistrate found that 114 inmates suffered from gastroenteritis because of contaminated water.

Ashok stayed in the home for 15 days before he was bailed out by an NGO. “There was one toilet for 100 inmates who were packed in a room… I could not chew the food they gave. The elderly were in worse condition and not even provided food as they could not work,” he recalls.

“There is no pipeline for drinking water. Electricity is hardly available, sanitation is appalling,” says Afsar Ahmad Khan, coordinator, Human Rights Law Network.

“I have been working with beggars for more than 10 years now. I have never heard of a case where a beggar was rehabilitated in these homes,” says Bipin, a supervisor with Indo-Global Social Service Society, an NGO which conducts counseling sessions for the city’s beggars.

As a solution, Bipin suggests a new law should be framed after considering the profile of city’s beggars. “The BPBA has become a premise to arrest lepers, wanderers and old-aged. None asks them why they beg,” says he.

In the DSW study which covered more than 3,500 beggars, around 74 percent respondents said they begged as they could not find a job. Out of these, 34 percent were handicapped. Begging was found to be a ‘family profession’ for only 24%.

“We have to create a system where they don’t return to begging. The law should put responsibility on the government,” says Collin Gonsalves, senior Supreme Court lawyer who is arguing Mander’s case.

“Government steps are based on popular notions that beggars can never give up the habit and that they do it deliberately. If there is proper rehabilitation where they can hone their skills, then why would they continue begging?” he adds.

Shanti Devi, meanwhile, is nonchalant. She wants to know when she will get her voters’ ID card so she can avail old age pension. The raids don’t deter her. “Dekhi jayegi,” she says.  How else can she survive in a city that wants to lock her up so the world can play?

Shanti Devi out Hanuman Mandir in Delhi's Connaught place area

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