Even homophilic readers of this column must admit: beggary is an unnatural activity. A person demands money for no tangible services rendered while you’re actually the one rendering the service — shifting your well-distributed weight from two butt-cheeks to one to take out change from your pocket to dole out. Even Amartya Sen will find that unnatural.
But hang on. After you look past the absence of any visible commodity or service being exchanged, even a low spark with high heels like you will realise that beggary serves an important function: it satisfies your appetite for letting out pity-cum-derision. Bluntly put, like breaking wind, giving money to beggars makes you feel better.
Ever since Rakesh Mehta, Chief Secretary, Delhi Government, sent out a letter on January 29 (D.0. No. 30(80)/Beggar Repatriation/SD/DSW/ 2009/CS/610) to his counterparts in ten states — Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh — I see beggar people like that irritatingly overdeveloped boy in The Sixth Sense.
The letter starts as if to an old schoolmate who shared the same civics teacher: “I am sure you are aware of the increasing menace of beggary in Delhi. The presence of beggars at traffic intersections, market areas and places of tourist interest create traffic hazards besides posing law and order problem (sic).” After which the jaw is clenched just a bit: “In view of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, public begging needs to be contained strictly.” The letter quotes a 2006 Delhi University study showing that “about 95 per cent” of Delhi’s beggars are migrants from UP (“27.25 per cent”), Bihar (“17.10 per cent”), Haryana (“7.17 per cent”), West Bengal (“5.72 per cent”), Rajasthan (“5.67 per cent”) and the five other states.
To cut a homeless story short, Rakesh Mehta has told chief secretaries of the ten ‘beggar-exporting’ states that he “would be grateful if suitable directions are issued to the concerned department in your state to cooperate with Social Welfare Department of Delhi Govt. to accept the beggars belonging to your state on transfer from Delhi”. (Apparently, the Tamil Nadu government makes requests like this all the time.) The letter ends spiffily: “Further modalities of such repatriation of beggars to their native states can be evolved in coordination of Govt. of India...” Heels are clicked, envelopes licked, while the country (not to mention Raj Thackeray) awaits its first modulated repatriation of internal migrants.
I never give money to beggars — not the limbless ones, not the ones multitasking with a doctor’s prescription, a baby and a crunched-up face, not the ones that come tap-tap-tapping below the level of the car window like a scuttling crab. Okay, okay, so I’ve succumbed a few times to the really old-looking ones. I was weak! But clearly, many of Delhi’s washed and combed folks do give money to these panhandlers. Beggary being the most free-market of all enterprises would have gone kaput if no one paid these performance artists. So if Dilliwallas are okay with beggars (migrant or otherwise, who cares in a city of migrants?), why the invocation of the Mosaic laws from the Durbar in Delhi?
Slumdog Millionaire was embarrassing enough for many people. But their discomfort on finding beggars tugging on foreigners’ sleeves, pleading non-Indians in beggar-English for money during the 15 days when the land that has an economy more powerful than Mother Teresa’s love plays host to an international sporting event will be acute. It’s one thing to cope with a harmless bed-wetting 30-year-old cousin and quite another if he comes out in his underwear while you’re hosting a party in your living room.
With the installation of mass communal showers letting out Zyklon B gas not an option, maybe a polite letter from the Delhi government to the “60,000-odd” beggars in the capital, requesting them to bugger off for at least 15 days with the provision of an alms package (nothing fancy, just loose change will do) is one solution. Ideally, though, giving money to beggars should be outlawed. With no money coming into begging bowls, the booming beggary sector in Delhi will simply be forced into painless, guiltless redundancy. But then, who would really like that?