Beggars are India’s new pet peeve. They may have been as much a part of the Indian landscape as, say, sadhus or rickshaws, but no longer. They are fast losing favour as India is, almost reluctantly, being pushed into adopting 21st century civic norms. The drive to reduce begging, rehabilitate beggars and restrain the beggar mafia has been launched in earnest to ‘clean up the streets’ before the Commonwealth Games. So, all of a sudden, beggars are getting attention like never before.
Delhi courts, the government and civic authorities are taking the growing ‘menace’ of begging very very seriously. It’s not that beggars have mushroomed like fungi all of a sudden. But then, the streets have to be cleaned up now. The State’s approach to beggars, however, is clearly not shared by the public, even if the latter makes disgruntled noises inside cars as grubby hands tap their car windows. If city slickers shoo them away, they also worry that begging has become a somewhat ‘lucrative’ cottage industry. For most of India, ‘asking for alms’ is an act hardwired into our mental landscape. After all, sadhus and babas are expected to beg for their daily bread. That ‘times are bad’ has only alerted citizens to monitor the ‘authenticity’ of the mendicant — but not the actual practice.
Yes, one is shocked by reports of unscrupulous doctors mutilating limbs for ambitious beggars. But at the end of the day, beggars are accepted as much as eunuchs are when it comes to ‘blessings’ for a wedding or a childbirth. In fact, only last week, a family invited around 200 beggars to a wedding. Initially suspicious, the beggars finally trooped to the ceremony in their best threads, to be treated with the utmost respect. The family hoped that future generations keep this tradition alive. If such stories are juxtaposed with the ‘chicken-soup-for-the-soul’ ones — their ‘sales talk’, their wit, the ‘smiling struggle’, et al — then, the mafia, the exploitation and the crime angles to the beggar story fade into nothing but a bit of a law and order problem, to be dealt with in fits and starts, but never with any real intent to go for a crackdown. So, the recent drive in Kolkata to train beggars to use their street theatre skills to create HIV awareness is likely to be similar to a drop in the cliché ocean.
Most of India would be happy to contain its beggars in temple towns and pilgrim centres. It is the urban beggar who is progressive and is frowned upon — those who have ‘chosen’ to beg for a living. As long as they remain out of sight, they will stay out of mind — despite being everywhere.