Millennium Post

No place for beggars in the Indian opera

Beggars do not make good stories. They are not consumers who can pay for or buy news. They are mostly peripatetic, therefore non-voters. They do not qualify for Aadhaar card, hence for cash dole. No wonder, the mention of beggars in the recently submitted 12th Five-year Plan Document did not find many takers in the Indian media. Curious as it may seem to many of us, excited as normally we are by the mention of the richest Indians in the global top 20 list, the Plan document cared to ask for a national policy on beggars and a model central law on begging. How many might be begging for alms in India? We do not have authentic data, said the Planning Commission. It quoted the unpublished data of 2001 census that there were 7.03 lakh beggars and vagrants. It mentioned the states, which had a high population of beggars in proportion to their total population. These are Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Punjab, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

This unique effort of the Planning Commission in ‘guesstimating’ the number of beggars is interesting. In a population of more than 100 crore, a mere 7 lakh is a negligible fraction. May be that is why there has so far been no proper enumeration of beggars in the country. The magazine Economic & Political Weekly recorded that as recent as in 2010, the government admitted in the Lok Sabha that it did not have any authentic data on beggars. Even if the number mentioned by the 12th Plan document looks improbable, the Commission deserves praise. At least there has been some welcome effort in accepting the prevailing problems of beggary.

Poverty is the primary reason for soliciting alms. The Plan document accepts that a significant proportion of persons begging suffer from various disabilities including mental illness. A number of them are addicted to various substances. This, of course, is no secret to anybody caring to glance outside the car windows in the national capital’s Connaught Place area. Many of those living on the roads and living out of alms are drug users. By neglecting this section living on the edge of humanity, the nation is merely encouraging criminal activities to flourish. In the recent case of the most heinous Delhi gang rape, one perpetrator was said to be living on the roads. The sin of neglect is bound to eventually hit us all.

One reason for the census recording low number of beggars could be the legislations. One of the first such legislation was India's beggary laws, a throwback to the centuries old European vagrancy laws, which instead of addressing the socio-economic issues make the poor criminally responsible for their position. The nebulous definition of a beggar, as per law, states that anyone who appears to be poor could be a beggar. The anti-beggar legislation is aimed at removing the poor from the face of the city.

One oldest such legislation was the ‘Bombay Prevention of Begging Act’ of 1959. The legislation, which inspired other states to replicate the same, sought to penalise the itinerant street entertainers, homeless workers, migrants, sexual minorities and disabled poor. The Planning Commission mentioned that 20 states and two Union Territories have anti-beggary legislations. In effect, such laws turned begging into an unlawful activity. Predictably, neither the beggars will like to be counted as beggars, nor will the census official care to record them as such. While there is no proper enumeration of beggars in the country, a cursory glance at the available data reveals that the number of women and children among beggars is ever increasing.

According to the 1931 census, there were just 16 per cent women beggars. The figure shot up to 49 per cent in 2001. At present, there are about 10 million street children, and many among those beg for their livelihood. And it needs no argument to accept that among the beggars, the most vulnerable are the women and children. They are exposed to exploitations of all kind. The shelter homes of the states are no better. These are in such pitiable condition that inmates opt to run away than to suffer the (in)hospitalities there. They prefer to live near rubbish dumps, roadsides, and traffic lights and under flyovers. The frail, crippled and mentally ill share space with children, women and able-bodied men and dogs.

A study of Delhi School of Social Work observed that the line that separates beggars from the casual poor is getting slimmer in a country where one in every four goes to bed hungry every night and 78 million are homeless. Over 71 per cent of Delhi's beggars are driven by poverty. More than 66 per cent of the beggars are able-bodied. The study revealed that begging as a livelihood wins over casual labour. For 96 percent of the beggars, the average daily income is Rs 80 more than what daily wage earners can make. Spending patterns also reveals a unique design: 27 per cent beggars spend about Rs 50-100 a day. Clearly the job creation measures failed to provide what begging did to the terminally poor.

Mumbai is home to a large number of beggars. According to the Maharashtra government, beggars there are worth Rs.180 crore a year, with their daily income ranging between Rs 20-80. Almost every survey profiles beggars as a largely contented lot unwilling to take up honest labour. Nearly 26 per cent in the Delhi survey claimed they were happy; 81 per cent claimed that they do not face any problem during begging and only 15 per cent mentioned humiliation from public and police. A survey done in 2004 by the Social Development Centre  of Mumbai revealed a similar attitude. The majority of beggars see it as a profitable and viable profession. Clearly, this illustrates abject state failure in ameliorating poverty. It is already very late. Nevertheless, the Planning Commission will still do well to use the anti-poverty measures targeted for the anti-begging legislations. (IPA)
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