Complex meant for housing beggars on Delhi’s outskirts now a ‘haunted jungle’
The Sewa Sadhan complex is operated by the Delhi government’s social welfare department. People found guilty of begging – an offence by law – are sent here for one to three years.delhi Updated: Nov 05, 2017 23:49 IST
Sonwati knows a lot about the vagaries of a beggar’s life. After all, she has spent a considerable part of her life, ‘advising’ them as their ‘friend and guide’.
“I have been like a mother to many beggars here; a lot of them are compelled to beg out of sheer poverty but there are others for whom begging is like a business,” says Sonwati, her eyes full of empathy.“But no beggar has come here for more than a year and I have nothing to do. This place is now like a haunted jungle.”
Sonwati has been a sweeper for the past 33 years at Sewa Sadan, a sprawling complex with five homes for beggars in Lampur village on the city’s north-western fringes. The complex is operated by the Delhi government’s social welfare department. People found guilty of begging – an offence by law – by the court are sent here for one to three years.
Sewa Sadan looks more like a salubrious college campus: it boasts of tree-lined paths strewn with leaves, vocational training rooms, an art room, a tennis court. The five beggars’ homes within the complex with their long, high-ceiling corridors, painted in blue-grey and pale-yellow, look like academic departments. The complex has 70 rooms with a capacity to house over 1,500 inmates, and also an impressive superintendent’s office.
But what this grand complex for beggars does not have is beggars – not even one even though the city teems with beggars.
On the wall, outside the superintendent’s office, is a board supposed to display ‘Residents strength of Sewa Sadan Complex at a Glance’. But the column that shows the day’s strength of each of the five houses is blank.
All you can hear is the rustle of trees and the barking of dogs. Peep into the rooms of this otherwise salubrious place and you see darkness, dust and cobwebs draping everything inside.
The superintendent, Krishan Kumar, we were told, rarely comes. We meet him at the social welfare department’s office in Gulabi Bagh, where he also serves as the district welfare officer. He is a curt, stout man with little patience for probing questions. Ask him about his job as the Lampur beggars’ home superintendent, and he tells you: “I am a senior superintendent, not superintendent. I go there just to clear salary-related work.”
He would not divulge anything more but according to information provided by the social welfare department in response to an RTI application by Delhi-based RTI activist Rajhans Bansal in 2015, the government had spent more than Rs 26.95 crore since 2009-10 on the Sewa Sadan beggars’ facility – about Rs20 crore on salaries of employees and the rest on services, maintenance and operations.
At present, only six employees are posted at the Sewa Sadan complex. Many have been transferred to other offices. “Though their sanctioned posts are at Sewa Sadan, they have been allocated work at different offices of the social welfare department,” says an official on the condition of anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
In the last seven years, the number of inmates at the complex has been dwindling: it had 200 beggars in 2010; 75 in 2011; 80 in 2012; 40 in 2013; 60 in 2014. While three homes have been shut for years, one serves as FRRO’s (Foreigner Regional Registration Office) detention centre for restricted foreign nationals.
Last year, the complex had one beggar – who, a staffer says, lived in ‘style’. “He had the entire 20 ft x 20 ft room to himself with a television, cooler, bed. He just did not want to go even after completion of his term as he was getting lodging, boarding and free food,” says a caretaker.
Sonwati says the inmates may have been beggars outside but here some of them would behave like royals and demand food of their choice.
“They would often ask for sweets and kheer. They were pretty nice to dogs and often offered them their leftovers,” she says, pointing to the seeming well-fed dogs menacingly roaming about in the premises.
“I wish there were a few the beggars here, the place is so boring without them,” says Sonwati. “But it is tough dealing with beggars, a lot of them were drug addicts, and they would fight with each other. Beggars, for some reason, are very angry people. We have to ensure they do not run away,” says a staffer, talking about the difficulties of his job.
Begging is an offence under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (it was extended to Delhi in 1960). “We conduct raids and round up beggars, but they are rarely convicted by court these days. The court generally releases them when beggars are produced before it,” says a senior welfare department official.
Rajendra Prasad Gautam, minister for social welfare, expressed his unawareness about the state of affairs at Sewa Sadan. “I will soon visit the Lampur facility and decide how it can be better used. We plan to open vocational training centres to prevent persons in livelihood crisis from begging. The idea is to enable them to earn their livelihood,” he said.
It is 6 pm and darkness has decided on the Sewa Sadan complex. The guard, Karmveer, has just arrived for night duty. Is he not scared being the lone guard of such a large, deserted place? “Not really, I do not have to worry much, these dogs can take care of any trouble maker,” he says as he settles in his chair in the guard room.