The non-seasonal drizzle has caught the city by surprise. Outside the courtyard, 10 men in regulation kurta pyjama, monkey caps and sweaters are squatting on the floor, hands folded. “Saheb angutha laga diya hai, judge saheb chhod denge ya nahin? (Sir, I have put by thumb impression on the papers, will I get freedom now), asks the avuncular Mohammed Ramzani, 70, whose flowing beard and wizened face promise a story.
Mistaking me for a lawyer from the Delhi Legal Services Authority, Ramzani says a raiding party of the Department of Social Welfare picked him up from Daryaganj. “They found Rs 4 with me and arrested me. My pleas of protest fell on deaf ears. Since I’ve begun staying away from my relatives in my old age, there is nobody to bail me out,” he says, voice quivering.
Inside, a lawyer is questioning a beat constable, one of the witnesses from the raid party. “Did you see anyone giving her a coin? Did you hear her begging for alms?” The answer is in the negative. The judge repeats the conversation in English to his assistant who is recording
the hearing on his typewriter.
The venue: Sewa Kuteer in Kingsway Camp, the only beggars court in the Capital. The occasion: Hearings to decide whether the detainees stay in the Department of Social Welfare’s Reception-cum-Classification Centre for Beggars or are put away in homes at Lampur, outside city limits.
Prakash, 32, from Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur district, has been arrested from outside Kalkaji temple in South Delhi. “My wife Badama is suffering from a kidney ailment and employment in the city is tough to find. I had visited the temple seeking prasad to feed her. All I’ve got is detention instead,” he says despondently.
The Court witnesses about 25-30 hearings on an average every day. The Department of Social Welfare’s raid parties generally comprise welfare officers and policemen. They can arrest beggars without a warrant and need at least one witness from the general public. “According to a recent judgment passed by High Court judge Badar Durrez Ahmed the raiding party should include at least one witness from the public. In most cases, witnesses from the public are missing,” says P.K. Sharma, a criminal lawyer who specialises in rescuing beggars and juvenile delinquents.
Lawyers can be choosers when it comes to beggars. Members of the Delhi Legal Services Authority provide legal aid to the underprivileged, gratis. Others simply seek their pound of flesh. “We don’t insist on charging poor beggars. Depending on their economic condition, we
decide on our professional fee. A few of them can’t even pay a rupee, but others, particularly the able-bodied ‘shani maharaj’ beggars pay upto Rs 2,000 a case,” says an advocate who doesn’t want to be named.
Are all destitutes that raiding parties pick up from temples, railway stations and beneath flyovers beggars? The cross-questioning of
witnesses from the raiding party points to the contrary. “You’ve picked her up only because her clothes were tattered,” suggests one lawyer. “You picked on him only because he was disabled,” says another.
The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 defines begging as soliciting or receiving alms in a public place and includes anyone “having no
visible means of subsistence and, wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner, as makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms.” This broad definition, say critics, allows the police to arrest anyone who looks poor and unfairly targets those who are homeless and live in public places such as pavements or parks.
According to the Act, beggars have to be produced before the court within 24 hours of being arrested. If the court is satisfied that the person is not likely to beg again, it may release him/her on a bond. A convicted beggar can be detained in a certified institution for a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years. (Begging Act, Chapter 2, section 5). Repeat offenders can be detained for a period of up to 10 years.
Department of Social Welfare statistics say the strength of beggar inmates at government homes in Delhi rose from 1,264 in November to 1,324 in January. How many of these were homeless vagrants driven to temples and gurudwaras by hunger and unemployment? And how many more would be picked up by raiding parties on the basis of suspicion, appearance or stereotypes?
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