When Naveen Jha heard an elderly couple in South Extension market implore passersby for just enough money to reach Rohtak, Haryana, he walked up to them and handed them a 100-rupee note cursing the others who ignored the couple.
"They looked like they genuinely needed help and I could not see them beg for money like that," said the college student. It was only after he met the couple at the same spot again after a week begging for money that he realised he had been duped.
"I never thought elderly people would con me like that," he adds with surprise. And while this instance did not end up hurting anyone grievously, horror stories about the begging racket abound.
The begging racket in the city is enormous, with beggars doubling up as perpetrators of crimes from all paradigms.
"While some beggars indulge in stealing, pick-pocketing and snatching, it is the more serious crimes like kidnapping, prostitution and drug dealing that are being run as organised operations by beggars," says a senior police official. As of 2006, there were approximately 60, 000 beggars in Delhi of which 5% are from Delhi, and the rest from neighbouring states. The department of social welfare runs 11 certified homes for beggars in the Capital that can house 2,860 inmates. At the moment, between 600-700 people reside in these homes.
According to non-governmental organisations and the police, most of the begging groups comprise either gypsies from Rajasthan and Gujarat and increasingly, men and women from western Uttar Pradesh. Young girls are usually kidnapped or lured from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Nepal and forced into prostitution or begging. Children kidnapped from the city are sent to smaller towns.
The case of Priya, who was kidnapped three years back and forced into begging is a testimony to how the begging racket thrives in the country. A year after she was kidnapped from the city, Priya was found begging in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by her mother. While this story had a happy ending, most do not.
According to rough estimates, close to 40,000 children go missing in the country every year. Of these around 10,000 are never found. “Children who get lost or are kidnapped invariably find themselves in the hands of beggars who double up as agents for other beggars as well as brothels. While young boys are maimed and sent to beg in front of temple, malls and busy traffic crossings, girls are usually pushed into prostitution,” adds the police official.
But NGOs that work with homeless and destitute warn against labeling beggars as criminals. “The poor are hounded for being poor in the country. No one is ready to assess the real reasons behind their poverty. The destitute do not want to beg, they want to work. It is a myth that the beggars are lazy, they just don’t get training or the kind of work they can do,” says Indu Prakash Singh, technical director, Indo Global Social Service Society, an NGO that works with the homeless and destitute.
Begging is a criminal offence under the Bombay Beggary Prevention Act of 1959 but begging is an issue that cannot be defined just by legalities.
“No one can deny that there are people who are genuinely poor and have no option but to beg for a living neither that begging rackets are a reality. It is the failure of the state to address issues such as poverty, illiteracy and unemployment that have fuelled the begging racket and resigned able bodied men and women to a life of beggary, lies and crime,” says Anjana Mahapatra, a sociologist at Delhi University.