In a corner of the desolate Sarai Kale Khan bus terminus, two white vans are parked on a mid-morning mission.
The first van, on which “Mobile Court” has been freshly stencilled in red paint, contains a stenographer and a magistrate. The second van holds a group of beggars, assorted sub-inspectors and harried probation officer Jojie John.
John’s Hindi is an even match for the mumbled Punjabi of a white-bearded beggar called Bhajan Singh, dressed in a shirt and dhoti that are nearly black with dirt. “Which dak khana (post office) zone do you come from?” John asks for the third time. Singh still doesn’t seem to understand the question.
“All right, which zila (district)?” John asks. “Jalandhar,” Singh answers.
“How far have you studied?” John asks, but the question is lost on his subject. So John finishes the report, written in neat longhand, and tells a constable: “Take him to the magistrate.”
Launched in early September, ostensibly to improve the city’s image ahead of Commonwealth Games 2010, these mobile courts roam sections of New Delhi, conducting summary trials of batches of beggars brought in by their raid squads. The original plan had called for 11 such courts, but only two are operational.
“Some days we get two beggars, some days 10,” says M.K. Gupta, one of the two magistrates deputed to the courts.
On this particular morning, there are five, rounded up by the raid squad from the vicinity of the terminus.
“Some of them give us trouble if they know who we are and what’s happening,” Pramod Kumar, the constable attached to the raid squad, says. “But usually they have no idea what’s going on, especially if they’re new to Delhi. ”
The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, extended to 18 states including Delhi, criminalises begging.
In February 2007, a Delhi High Court bench further instructed the city’s government to clear the streets of beggars and to send them to one of 12 beggars’ homes.
But as S.A. Awaradi, director of Delhi’s social welfare department, acknowledges, the courts can only function as long as their trial procedures are legal.
“A public interest litigation (PIL) has been filed in Delhi High Court, raising the legality of the law,” Awaradi says. “We’re only implementing the (2007) instructions of the bench as per the law... today.” If the PIL is heard favourably, the courts may have to be disbanded.
But the initiative to try beggars, Awaradi and his deputy P.C. Sharma say, is necessary.
In 2006, a department report said there were 58,000 beggars in Delhi — a number, Sharma admits, may have been too high then, but has certainly grown in three years.
Sharma says their teams have been advised to let those who beg for a living go with a warning. “Against the professional gangs, though, action will be taken,” he adds.
Harsh Mander, a crusader for the urban homeless and one one of the litigants in the PIL, isn’t convinced.
“They always cite these ‘mafias of begging’ as an answer, but there’s very little evidence that the... majority of... beggars are part of any mafia,” he says.
Mander finds it unacceptable that begging is thought of as a crime that needs to be dealt with. The beggars’ homes, he adds, are “worse than jails, with conditions that are... subhuman”.
Of the 28 people he has come across in the last month, John confirms he has met no “professional” beggars.
“They’ve all been poor people who have come to the city,” he says. “Of these, we sent 17 to the beggars’ homes and let the others go with a warning.”
The trial, conducted out of the magistrate’s van, is at express speed. Gupta looks through Singh’s file, prepared minutes ago by John.
“Should we send you to a nice place where you’ll get food and a place to rest?” Gupta asks. Singh doesn’t understand, but before he can offer an opinion, the magistrate passes his verdict: “Send him to one of the institutions for one year.”
Does he know where the magistrate is sending him? He doesn’t. “You’re going to a place where they’ll keep you for a year and feed you,” a bystander explains.
Singh’s expression, which hasn’t changed since the process began, remains impassive, as if the words haven’t registered.