Delhi answers call to alms with legislation, without heart
A battered, old van stands on one of the busiest streets in Delhi. For those not in the know, this could be just any other old van, plying the streets till it is actually condemned. But inside, a blind man is being readied for a trial.
Sarju and his nephew, Babu, are sitting on the seat farthest from the van’s door. Their saffron robes, black at the cuffs from grime, stick out in this van full of dourly dressed people. A long way from their home in Rohtak, Haryana, Babu has been his uncle’s eyes, guide and companion the last 20 days they have been in Delhi. Sarju, whose chafed feet search for a floor beneath every time he takes a step, is the breadwinner. But today, they are the day’s catch—for the city’s anti-begging squad.
Under a law which many feel does more wrong than set things right, begging is a punishable offence. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act is clearly not a spent force from 1959
Sarju hunches over the seat in the front, not knowing whom to address. He pleads—with the cops, the social welfare officer and when all fails, with me to let him go. For one more chance. That is when I realise he had been picked up before.A week back, they had run into the same squad at India Gate. The metropolitan magistrate had not minced words about the city not wanting them there—or anywhere else within its limits.
The BPB Act’s legalese, translated into the lay-speak, says that a first-time ‘offender’ is to be reprimanded and let off or detained. The repeat ‘offenders’ are sentenced to a minimum of one year and maximum of three.
“A fast-track trial and then either they are let off or sent to any of the 12 beggars’ homes we have in the city,” the social welfare officer informs me.
The pleading hasn’t stopped. But all it earns is sneers from helpless cops. They would have let him be if it was up to them. But an international sporting event is coming to their city and the orders are to see that no beggars, including greasy-haired, blind ones in orange robes, roam the street soliciting charity and a kind word.
The van moves and the cops talk of trips and hotels. Anything to drown out the pleas.
The social welfare officer has pages to fill—every bit the department needs to know about Sarju is on those sheets of paper stapled together. A sick mother is at the heart of his story about why he turned to begging. The reasonably fit Babu nods here and there to lend credence to his uncle’s version of things. Every answer from Sarju could equally have been true or false. The bit about his mother’s medical bills, his own treatment costs, Rs 198 in change earned polishing shoes may or may not have been believable. But his poverty is as true as it was ugly. His handicap is there for all to see.
Babu’s age may not be more than the 16 years he says, but Sarju has greyed much beyond his 45 years.
As the van waits for the judge to turn up with his mobile court, a game of nerves is under way. Every time the two beg for letting them go, the police respond with a probable sentence as a jibe hoping that it could keep them quiet. But, it just makes Sarju beg even harder for release. The mock-sentencing-and-imploration is declared closed by a ringing mobile phone. The magistrate is already here, informs the social welfare officer as he gets out of the van. A few minutes later one of the constables asks the beggars to come for trial. The panic that seizes the younger boy is immediately apparent. He had been the silent one, but now he is begging even harder than Sarju.
Sarju is led to the court—another van, only bigger. He is made to stand by an open window. The magistrate has already discussed his case with the social welfare officer. The words he frequently mouths sound ominous: “second time.” The judge looks him over without a word. A ledger with Sarju’s thumbprint lies open before the judge, the pages spilling the details from the former’s first brush with the anti-begging squad.
It all ends in less than a minute. Sarju has been presented, tried and sentenced—three years of confinement at a beggars’ home. Babu has been let off as he is still a minor and beyond the jurisdiction of the court. It is a matter for the Children’s Welfare Committee. He is no one’s responsibility.
The cop who had led Sarju to the court walks him to the pick-up van. He doesn’t even try to pull away. “Don’t worry, you will get food and clothes there,” says the social welfare officer.
Babu’s imploring gets louder as he sees his uncle being taken away. Even before passers-by can stop and react, he is dragged away by one of the cops into the same raiding van. “We will drop him off somewhere, with the money they collected begging,” the social welfare officer says, sounding the most apologetic.
Not just the Barakhambha road or Connaught Place, most of Delhi is being cleansed of beggars.
The city is crossing over. The old, Indian metropolis is dead. When the afterlife begins, the city hopes that it would have rightfully joined the Club of World-Class Metros. A city that eagerly hosts tourists but shuts the door on those who need its streets for a night’s sleep.
It is a beggar’s pride that he is not a thief, the Japanese say. But in Delhi, even this last remnant of self-worth is no longer the holding of its homeless and its poorest.