Is it possible to rehabilite beggars? Anecdotes from Delhi- Jan 9, 2012
One of winter’s most heart-wrenching sights is to see under clad children begging on the streets, shivering and asking for money. The reactions of us folks sitting inside the vehicles at traffic lights is a tad more pathetic though. Most studiously ignore, others actively chase away and those whose hearts melt, reach out for a few coins and move on when the light turns green.
A few years ago, on a particularly cold, foggy night, I was driving to a friends place for dinner. Near the Ber Sarai traffic light near JNU there were a few kids doing their begging routine, when I saw a lady pull down her window and talk to them! She sounded quite stern, asking the kids where their parents were!
My first reaction was to laugh out loud. What kind of question is that to begging kids? But soon enough, I shut up and watched intently, for the lady proceeded to pile the kids up in her car and drive away. Consumed with curiosity, I followed….underneath the nearby flyover, we found the street-dwellers family (group may be more appropriate). The lady, who I realized was familiar with these people yelled at the parents of the kids, asking them to give them sweaters! Turns out her NGO works with these kids and they had been given woollies a few days ago. The parents had taken the woollies off and sent the kids begging bare-chested to spark pity and hopefully get some alms out of the rich people in the cars!
I was aghast, first at the cruelty that these parents were inflicting on their own kids, but more at the extreme poverty that drove people to this. Recently, there was a news item that described an attempt the Delhi government has made to rehabilitate beggars into beggar homes (three of these exist at Seemapuri, Jail Road and Lampur). As per the HT article, about 600 beggars currently live in these homes, where they get food and are taught some skills as well. Apparently, those who enrolled got a small stipend per day. The government had increased this daily stipend to Rs 30 this year, but beggars are demanding Rs 80 per day saying its more lucrative for them to beg rather than accept such terms. Beggars claim that Rs 30 isn’t sufficient for them to support themselves anyway to fulfill their needs beyond food and shelter.
The positive strain here is that the authorities are still trying to find a solution to rehabilitate beggars (as opposed to the crazy idea to throw them out before the Commonwealth Games in 2010, only to let them back in post-Games!), but to me the problem appears more complex that offering them shelter and food. What is the guarantee that the skills imparted to them will convert into jobs? Is there some sort of employment guarantee? What other measures can we take to ensure better rehabilitation so that these people don’t go back to begging, which has become a way of life for them? Also, the solutions would need to cater to the over 60,000 beggars in Delhi (number estimated by Action Aid in 2004, which means there are lot more today), which is a huge challenge.
Coming back to my little story. The incident changed my perspective forever. Now I try and carry biscuits or bananas when I am going to areas frequented by beggars and simply distribute food, hoping to in some way alleviate their suffering (Dear reader, do share stuff you do to give me some ideas on how else to help). Money, I know, will find its way into the parents’ pockets and expenditure may not benefit the children directly. Though I don’t think ALL street dwellers are drug junkies or alcoholics, I know its a real problem and why not just give the children something they can use immediately? I also roll down the window and talk to them like they are normal people, smile at the babies and ask about their age, gender, etc. It doesn’t hurt to be human, does it? Yesterday, on Lodi Road, I was rewarded with a huge toothless smile as the little one chewed away on a Monaco biscuit, holding the rest of the packet firmly in her grip!