Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hiding beggars

New Delhi, India is in a cleaning up process before the Commonwealth Games next summer. The city has already erected walls around the city's slums to visitors can't see them. Now, the city is rounding up beggars and hiding them in jail. However, even the New Delhi's best efforts to "clean up" gets tied up in bureaucracy.

From Australia's The Age, a reporter went for a ride in one of the clean up vans.

There are beggars aplenty in the Indian capital - an estimated 58,000 of them, according to a 2006 Office of Social Welfare survey, although many charities working with street people say that figure is laughably low.

The squad members - four plainclothes constables and a supervising inspector - do not walk more than a block before they spot the first beggars, a pair of elderly women.

The police stop, survey them, then move on. They pause to make note of a few older men squatted on a sidewalk, hands outstretched to passersby. Then some children. The police do not, however, actually arrest anyone.

The magistrate who travels in their van, poised to process the mendicants and dispatch them instantly to alms houses, sits reading newspapers and sweating in his black suit and tie.

"The judge ordered us to leave the lepers," says Const. Ashok Kokhar, as he steps around a half-dressed man exposing sores to beg for coins outside a mosque that is a huge tourist attraction.

"He doesn't want anyone contagious in the van."

They pass more old women, whom they leave in their alley.

"Anyone who looks old - 70 or 80 - we are leaving them, because what would they do in jail," Const. Usha Rani says.

Many of those who work to help Delhi's street poor say the mobile courts - and indeed the law that criminalises begging - are misguided at best and barbaric at worst.

"The person arrested is being punished for being poor, but poverty is caused by state policies," says Paramjeet Kaur, director of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, a shelter that provides street people with legal help.

"But instead of looking at that, or addressing real needs of people on the street, they just put them away in locked homes."

Meanwhile, the government offers no shelters that people can access without being arrested, she says.

The courts mostly detain "people who do not have the power to question or challenge why they have been picked up".

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