NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Most mornings in New Delhi, a battered van sets off around the Indian capital and snatches bedraggled and disabled men from the streets.
These men are among the last things Delhi wants to see as it spruces itself up ahead of hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games, seen as a chance to flaunt the capital as the face of a new, more modern India.
Hundreds of beggars are being locked up for between one and ten years under anti-begging laws.
As the raid van patrols the streets of Delhi, officers watch expectantly through the windows as a hunchbacked young man in rags hobbles around a corner, his withered left leg dangling between his crutches, a memento of childhood polio.
The man stopped at a roadside kiosk and stretched out a hand. The kiosk owner took pity.
“He gave him money, let’s go!” shouted A.M. Pandey, head of the Delhi’s beggar raiding team, as he and a colleague hurtled out of the van towards the man, who was carefully pocketing a one-rupee coin (about 2 U.S. cents).
The shocked man first tried smiling his way out of trouble as he was led across the road, his crutches scrabbling on tarmac.
“Don’t push me,” he said, his smile quickly dissolving in tears when he realized he was being forced into the van.
“I’ll go home and not beg, I promise you.”
While India’s economy may be growing faster than ever, so are income inequalities. It still has no comprehensive welfare system to keep millions of people out of desperate poverty.
Activists say it is a double injustice to imprison those that hit rock bottom in Indian cities, and they want begging decriminalized.
Even some of those working within the system, who repeatedly bring up the government pressure they are under with the coming of the Commonwealth Games, agree there are serious problems.
A welfare officer at one of the beggar jails said he had men in his custody who he believed were innocent homeless laborers, who can look indistinguishable from beggars.
The men caught during raids are initially locked up in a rat-infested north Delhi detention centre. There is no phone for them to call family or friends, although they are allowed to write or dictate a letter.
Eventually they appear before a magistrate in a dedicated beggars court. Nearly 3,000 men shuffle through each year.
The defendant’s case is decided on the strength of his word against that of the government official who originally bundled him into the van. Sometimes there is a lawyer from a non-governmental organization to help.
Proving that begging took place is not necessary.
As the 50-year-old law says, “having no visible means of subsistence,” and so being likely to beg, is enough for a conviction.
Some men go free. Others are locked up until they can get someone to pay a bond, typically 3,000 rupees ($75). The rest are sent to a beggar jail for one to three years, or up to ten on a second offence -- the same penalty as for violent robbery.
If they are “blind, a cripple or otherwise incurably helpless,” as the law puts it, they can be locked up for the rest of their lives, at the discretion of a senior civil servant.
“This law criminalizes poverty,” said Paramjeet Kaur, the director of homeless charity Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan.
“Mostly the people who are caught are not beggars, they are the working homeless or travelers, people new to the city.”
A welfare officer at one detention centre agreed there was some truth in this. “It happens -- people get caught who aren’t begging but who are just migrant laborers living on the road,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
REHAB DOESN‘T WORK
There are nearly 60,000 beggars in Delhi, according to the local government -- nearly a third are children.
The ancient idea of giving alms as a religious duty is still strong, which is why temples and mosques are the first places the raid van heads to each morning to catch beggars.
But some middle-class Indians just find beggars irritating.
Members of the New Delhi Bar Association successfully urged the courts this year to see that more beggars are locked up, saying some of them can be rude and threatening.
Likewise, the media routinely describe beggars as a menace, and characterize them as scheming and surprisingly wealthy members of organized criminal gangs.
But many authorities working with beggars say there is almost no evidence for such claims. Most beggars earn less than 50 rupees a day (about $1), according to two separate government surveys -- about the price of a cappuccino in a ritzy Delhi cafe.
Most migrated to Delhi from villages in India’s poorest states for lack of income, often due to illiteracy, disease or old age. Many are women and children, but the government struggles to find the female staff needed by law to catch them.
Rehabilitation is usually given as the main justification for jailing Delhi’s beggars, but only a dozen or so men out of the 350 currently locked up at one of the beggar homes opt to take the spinning, handloom and carpentry classes offered there.
One convict said the rest of them -- who spend their days lying on mats on the floor, 20 to a room -- had been waiting more than a month for the television to be fixed.
None of the officers who spoke to Reuters believed that anyone benefited from the training classes offered, the same conclusion reached by a Supreme Court committee’s investigation in 2005.
Among the more diligent students were Ashok, 42, and Vidya, 60, who insisted they were wrongly caught.
They said spinning would pass the time for the next year or two, but they hoped to get their old jobs back -- in a printing press and a plastics factory -- once they were free again.
Additional reporting by Manjusha Chatterjee; editing by Alistair Scrutton and Megan Goldin