They were ubiquitous at market places, traffic intersections and other busy spots. But suddenly Chandigarh's beggars seem to have disappeared into thin air - perhaps in a bid to avoid a rehabilitation scheme!
Desperate to launch a campaign to rid this 114-sq km city of beggars and bring them into the mainstream, education department officials recently started looking for them. But they were able to trace just 40-odd beggars. The rest seemed to have vanished.
Be it in the commercial centres of Sector 10, 11, 15, 17, 22, 35 and Mani Majra or at busy traffic intersections, the beggars are nowhere to be found after the campaign under the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched by education officials earlier this month.
"The beggars simply evaporated after word spread that city officials were trying to trace them. We know that they must have shifted their activities to the city's periphery for now but that has hampered our campaign. They have left us begging for beggars," an education official told IANS.
Two inspectors, eight supervisors and several SSA coordinators were put on the job for over 10 days this month to trace beggars for the campaign.
Most beggars are believed to have shifted their operations to the neighbouring towns of Panchkula and Mohali - both of which are adjoining Chandigarh and form part of the tri-city.
"The campaign was started with the aim to stop begging and child labour and bring the beggars and disadvantaged children back to the mainstream," said SK Setia, Chandigarh's director, public instruction (schools), who is the SSA project director.
The city has a population of nearly 1.1 million residents, of which over 300,000 live in slums.
Attempts in the past by city officials to make Chandigarh a beggar-free city have failed. But the campaign has temporarily made it free of beggars.
Under the SSA campaign, the beggars were to be rehabilitated at specially created centres in Chandigarh where they would have been given vocational training to make them self-reliant. They were to be provided food, educational facilities, clothing and even a stipend of Rs 250 per month to discourage them from begging.
The education department has now appealed to city residents to help them in the campaign. Telephone numbers have been provided to give any information about beggars, especially children, so they can be caught and rehabilitated.
Education officials feel the sudden disappearance of the beggars from the city indicated that they were being controlled by a local mafia which may have instructed them to keep away for a few days.