For beggars in Delhi, a training drive may hold beacon of hope
Sanjay Kumar Kushwaha, 25, is listening intently to his trainer as he tells a class of 25 students, all beggars on the streets of Delhi until a month back, about various tools of painting a wall—brush, roller, sandpapers and their uses. The class is part of the Delhi government’s pilot project to provide vocational training to beggars in Delhi to rehabilitate them.
The government launched the project last month after a survey in collaboration with the Institute for Human Development to identify persons engaged in the act of begging (PEAB) in the city. In the survey, around 20,719 were identified as PEAB in Delhi, of which, 53% (10,987) were men, and 46% (9,541) women; one per cent (191) were transgender. The highest number of PEAB were in the east Delhi district (2,797). Women are to be trained in food processing, and their training is yet to begin, but men are being currently trained in house painting at a government’s night shelter home at north Delhi’s Roshanara Road. They will also be issued a painting kit and a certificate of training.
“ This city forced me into begging; I hope this training changes my life,” says Kushwaha, who came to Delhi one year ago to look for work, but ended up begging at a temple near Nigam Bodh Ghat. He is a picture of despair as he talks of his journey from a village in Madhya Pradesh to Delhi last year. “ My train reached early in the morning and since it was dark I took a nap outside the old Delhi railway station. When I woke up, my bag, which had my clothes and ₹200, was missing. I had nothing with me and knew no one in the city. Taking pity on me a ‘baba’ took me to a temple in north Delhi where food was distributed to the poor,” says Kushwaha.
“For many days, I went to a labour chowk to find work as a casual labourer, but those who offered me work asked for my identity card, which I did not have. I had no choice eventually but to join a group of beggars in front of the temple,” he says.
Over the next three months, Kushwaha grew a beard and often covered his face while begging. “I did so to hide my age because people would often abuse me, saying that I was young and should work. No one understands that despite my best efforts, I got no work,” says Kushwaha.
Ramesh Singh 62, another trainee in the class who came to Delhi from his village in Rohtak in Haryana 17 years ago, had a similar story to tell. “Labour chowks are the places where uneducated and unskilled migrants from the village go in search of work, but the fact is that only about 20% get any sort of work and the rest return empty- handed every day. This situation only worsened during the pandemic. During the pandemic, I have seen hundreds of new faces at labour chowks and most get no work,” says Singh, adding that he has been luckier than Kushwaha. “Because of my age people have been kinder to me. I would beg at temple, red lights and get ₹100 a day in loose change; but I had to pay ₹25 to a grocery shop where I exchanged my coins for notes. Weather plays an important role. During the rains, we get neither any work nor alms.”
Neeraj Kumar, 37, another trainee in the class is one of the keenest learners, according to his trainer from Asian Paints . He is giving correct answers to most of the questions asked by the trainer. What is the various steps in painting a wall? the trainer asks. Kumar is quick with the answer—“First we do sanding and scrapping, then put primer; then putty and then do sanding again, and put the primer again, and then finally paint the wall,” he says. The trainer is impressed.
Telling his story during the lunch break, he says he ran away from his home in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, at the age of 13 after his father killed his mother and was arrested. For the first couple of years, he worked as a rag picker in Delhi. Then one day, when he was at a labour chowk looking for work, he was approached by a man who offered him work at a dabha on the Gurdaspur– Pathankot Highway. He went with him.
“ Having worked there for a few days, I realized that I was his bonded labourer. I worked day and night, but the dabha owner would neither pay me anything, now let me go. But one night I managed to run away with the help of a kind trucker driver,” says Kumar, his eyes welling up. “Over the years, I worked at dabhas across the country where I was provided only food and little or no money,” he says.
He says he worked in the agricultural fields in villages in Muzaffarnagar in western UP, where the landowners paid just ₹500 a month instead of the promised ₹3,000 a month. “The fact is that hundreds of people are lured from the labour chowks in Delhi to work in agricultural fields and are paid nothing,” says Kumar. “ People do not want to pay to the labouring poor; they feel just giving food is enough. During the pandemic, I turned to begging when I got no work.”
Kumar, who has studied up to Class 7, likes to spend time in the library of the training centre, which is also home to all the beggars getting vocational training. In the past week, he has already finished Mansarovar, a collection of short stories by Premchand. “He evocatively captures the life of the poor people like me,” says Kumar, who has had no contact with his father, does not know whether he was ever released from jail. He hopes that once he becomes a ‘certified painter’, he would not have to beg. “Begging is the most demeaning thing to a human being, but believe me sometimes there is no other choice,” he says.
Param Jeet Kaur , co-founder and director of Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an NGO, engaged by the government to train beggars in the central district , says it is difficult to get beggars to the training centres. “They are very suspicious of people, what with their bitter experiences in life. We are tasked with finding and training all 2,500 beggars on the government list . Most of them are at bus stops, temples, red lights, ” she says. “Before starting training for the first batch of beggers, we had to give them psycho-social counselling, train them in personal hygiene and teach them soft skills for a month. Most were unwilling to even to take a bath or a haircut. Before getting them interested in work, we needed to get them to dream again. And that is the most difficult part,” she adds.
Rashmi Singh, special secretary and director, department of social welfare, Delhi government, says that the government plans to handhold them (beggars) in the long run. “We are now launching the project in all districts of Delhi. We aim to train all persons engaged in the act of begging across the city, train them and help them find employment. In the long-term, we will follow up and provide whatever help is required to ensure that they do not return to begging,” says Singh.
Back at the training centre, it is afternoon and time for the trainees for a practical lesson in ‘applying the primer on a wall.’
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