Given alternate sources of income, Delhi's beggars prosper

New Delhi: M Guruappa grew up and faced the world quite early. When he was 18, he got injured on the thumb of his right foot. He was bleeding profusely. But there was no pain. It was the initial stage of leprosy or Hansen’s disease. His family and fellow villagers at Gulbarga district, Karnataka, shunned him.

Some odd jobs and many humiliations later, he shifted base to Mahim station in Mumbai. By then, the disease had gone visible. One day, a group of beggars hosted him over dinner and Guruappa embraced them and their profession.

It was business as usual, till Emergency when Shiv Sena’s drive against outsiders forced the group to leave the state. The destitute would beg during the day and travel in trains at nights cursing his stars, each day. After many such journeys, the group settled on a barren piece of land near Faridabad railway station, around 45 minutes drive from the national capital.

Soon, many lepers who used to make a living out of soliciting alms started pouring in. A lepers’ colony or ‘kodhiyon ki basti’, as the locals call it, was born.

M Guruappa, along with others lepers, gave up begging when they were given alternate sources of livelihood. Danish Siddique/

Sometime in early 1980s, Guruappa and others in his community heard about MESH (Maximising Employment to Serve the Handicapped) — a project that employed lepers and disabled.

What happened after that changed the fate and occupation of the colony’s 200-odd beggars.

“We had a poultry farm in the colony. In 1986, we got an order of broiler chickens from MESH,” said Guruappa, pradhan of what is now known as Bharat Mata Kusht Ashram, home to more than 300 people — 110 of whom have experienced different stages of leprosy.

“MESH put a condition before us. We had to quit begging. Since then, we have not stretched our hands before anybody,” he added.

Next year, the community people pooled in money and bought a handloom unit.

“We placed orders with them to make bed sheets, table cloth and mattresses. Lots of them used to beg because they were marginalized by the society and were left with no other option to feed their families. We gave them livelihood,” said Jacqueline Bonney, secretary, MESH.

“MESH buys the products manufactured at the unit. These are then sold at MESH shops in Delhi, Hyderabad and are exported to seven countries,” she added.

Gilmore, a Canadian, founded MESH in early 1970. Leprosy patients in Haryana’s Bethany village supplied broiler chickens to MESH which were then distributed to wholesale markets in Delhi.

Over the next decade, the organisation expanded to bring into its fold the leprosy-affected communities of Andhra Pradesh and Jaipur.

In 2010- 2011, MESH purchased handicraft products worth more than Rs 9 million from 39 suppliers. Out of these, 17 are leprosy groups.

The only time Delhi government did a head count of its beggars was in late 2008, when it put the figure at 58,000.

Mumbai never bothered to count its beggars, which could have given it an estimate of how serious the issue is.

Lately, something different is unraveling in the Maximum City.

For the last two years, the inmates of the Beggar’s Home in Chembur, sentenced under the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959 (BPBA), have been going out for jobs during day time to return to the Home in the evening.

Their salaries get deposited with the superintendent of the institution and are given to them on their release.

“The selection of inmates who go out for work is based on assessment done by the case workers in the Home,” said Mohd Tarique, coordinator with Koshish, a field action project of TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences). “No one has escaped in the last two years,” he added.

Koshish was launched in August 2006 to address issues related to destitution. The project has intervened in more than 8,000 cases of

BPBA through various schemes including legal aid, medical intervention, calling home programme and employers’ collective.

Beggars balance the affluence of our cities. Perhaps that is why we have not been able to address the issue.

Instead of adopting a holistic approach, the government found it easy to criminalise begging.

BPBA, active in Mumbai, Delhi and Gujarat; beggary laws in 20 states and three union territories, make begging in public places a crime and a punishable offence.

“This is somewhat similar to the government’s approach to prostitution, where it simply absolved itself from any responsibility by declaring the activity as a crime,” said Amita Joseph, a Supreme Court lawyer.

However, MESH and Koshish, running parallel to government’s programmes, have proved far more successful than any government scheme to tackle beggary in the country. While MESH brings work to the begging community within their colony, Koshish has been working out of Beggars’ Home in Delhi and Mumbai in liaison with the government.

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There are 13 anti-begging squads in Delhi which arrest around 2,600 beggars annually. Post trial, they are sent to one of the 12 certified institutions or Beggars’ Homes.

While decking up for CWG 2010, Delhi came up with an idea to get rid of beggars (as you cannot get rid of beggary). Rakesh Mehta, then chief secretary, Delhi government wrote to ten states from where most of Delhi’s beggars come, requesting them to prevent the influx of their beggars into the national capital.

It is believed that for the 12 days that the Games were on, thousands of beggars were dumped on the outskirts of the city. “It was a migration which none documented. They ended up in border towns such as Ghaziabad and Faridabad,” said an NGO worker who has worked closely with the destitute.

BPBA defines beggars as people “…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”, said the Act.

Beggars wait for alms outside the Hanuman Mandir in Connaught Place, Delhi. The concept of charity in religion poses a chalenge for the authorities working to tackle begging. Naresh Sharma/

The definition covers people from nomadic tribes and those involved in selling of articles at traffic signals, fortune telling and snake charming.

So many times authorities may end up arresting and sentencing people who have never begged.

Take Amma’s case for example.

Amma’s urge to see her child made a beggar out of her, literally.

Amma lived with her younger son in his South Delhi flat for two weeks, before he disowned her. The mechanic son had little money and no heart to feed another mouth, so the street became the 83-year-old Amma’s home. One day, two cops in a Maruti Omni van and hauled her and took her to a female Beggars’ Home at Jail road. Under the BPBA, Amma was sentenced for three years. The vehicle was one of the two mobile courts introduced in Delhi in 2009.

Under the ‘calling home’ programme, Koshish volunteers traced Amma’s elder son in Bihar, who came to Delhi to get his mother released.

By that time, Amma had spent three months in the Home.

In 2009, Koshish started working with the destitute in Delhi and is now lobbying with the state government to repeal BPBA.

“You can surely rehabilitate them (beggars) with consistent systemic work carried over the years. It shows results,” said Indu Prakash Singh of IGSSS, an NGO working for the destitute.

BPBA also suffers from faulty implementation.

In a lot of cases, policemen and staff of the social welfare department arrest people from the non-formal sector — laborers, rickshaw pullers, vegetable vendors and truck drivers. “There are cases when rickshaw pullers have been arrested because they were standing in the queue to get their share of langar,” said Indu Prakash.

And employers of these non-formal sector employees dread to approach the department for their employees’ released.

Koshish, under the employers’ collective programme, sensitises the employers to get released their employees from institutions.

“The idea is to tell the employer that the law is simple and that he would not have to make umpteen visits to the government office and courts to release the employee,” said Tarique.

There’s something about the person who knocks at the window of your car stationed at the traffic signal. “If we do not do something concrete now, he might break the window next time,” said Joseph.

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Updated Date: Jan 05, 2012 22:08 PM

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