Begging knows no downturn. From a few thousand in the early 1990s, beggars in Delhi now number more than 60,000, according to a study by Delhi University’s School of Social Studies.
Next year, the number is expected to touch one lakh. “Visibly, begging has increased as Delhi is a powerful magnet for people from poverty-stricken areas,” said Amod Kanth, chairperson of Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights.
Rajni at Katputli Colony in Patel Nagar and Putli in Lal Quarter area of Rohini feel the increased competition because of migration of poor people from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. But they say Delhiites donate generously for all beggars to survive. “On average, I earn Rs 150 a day, which is enough for me,” said Putli, who begs around temples in his wheelchair.
The hustle and bustle at Lal Quarter at 6 am is unusual. A variety of beggars, witnessed in different parts of the city, can be seen moving out from a small lane.
Each beggar is allotted a designated place for a specified time. After that time slot, the person is shifted to a new signal. “If we beg at one point for a long time, the earnings fall. Frequent transfer is the key to sustained earning,” said Vijay Babli, leader of beggars at Lal Quarter.
Among beggars, there is a clear division of work. The Doms, tribals from Rajasthan, seek alms on religious lines — like Shani Dan on Saturdays. Sansis earn by performing tricks or claiming to be ill.
Kanth said begging in Delhi was ”kind of organised” but not run by the mafia, as shown in movies like Slumdog Millionaire.
The stranglehold of managers on the business can be gauged from the fact that they gift traffic signals as dowry, instead of cash or property.
When 16-year-old Radha was married off in March, her in-laws got five traffic signals from Mukarba Chowk to Mangolpuri Chowk, in north Delhi, as dowry.
“We don’t have cash to give. Our only property is the place of work (traffic signal) which we protect at any cost,” said Bubli.
Old timers in the profession say important begging places like Connaught Place, India Gate and South Extension have been under the control of some families for generations. “Some of them have even got affidavits claiming that begging is their traditional profession and they should not be punished,” said Rajender Singh, a lawyer who specialises in cases of beggars.
The business is organised to the extent that beggars get some sort of training before being pushed into the profession. “The seniors in the business teach tricks of the trade to younger entrants,” said Vijay Bubli, leader of beggars in Lal Quarter.
In Rohini and Patel Nagar, HT found out that training was sometimes brutal for children and animals. “Till they earn, we give them food once a day,” admitted a beggars’ leader at Patel Nagar, who refused to state his name.
Kanth said the government had agreed to the Commission’s view that child beggars should be considered under Juvenile Justice Act as those in need of care and protection and not criminals under Bombay Preventing of Begging Act.
“Soon a scheme providing shelters-cum-activity centers for child beggars will be started. The Lieutenant-Governor has already approved the scheme,” he said.