All aboard Delhi's beggar express

Authorities desperate to spruce up the city are rounding up and jailing street beggars ahead of the Commonwealth Games

The woman with the tear-streaked face presses together her palms in supplication and throws herself into the dust in front of the magistrate. "I'll even spit on the road and lick it if you want me to. I beg you, just let me go," she wails. "If I ever come back here I will hang myself. Please, just let me go."

Barely an hour earlier, Pholphata, the shabbily dressed woman whose name means "flower petal", her two young children and a friend had been arrested by a squad of plain-clothes police officers who had spotted them half-heartedly begging in a train station in the east of Delhi.

Now, in barely the time it has taken a nearby chai wallah to boil up a pot of sweet, milky tea, they have been brought for summary justice before a magistrate sitting in a mini-bus set on the edge of a busy road. He will decide whether to release the women grovelling in the road beneath the open window of his vehicle, or else jail them for a year. "We have to decide according to the law," declares the magistrate, MK Gupta, wearing a jacket and tie, as traffic thunders past his hot, makeshift courtroom.

Ahead of October's Commonwealth Games, the government in India's capital has increased the number of mobile beggars' courts from one to three. The courts, it insists, are merely a more modern way of seeking to address a centuries-old problem.

But campaigners argue that the authorities, desperate to present to the world an image of India in which everything is new and progressive, are seeking to sweep the poor out of sight – an undertaking that has already involved tearing down some slums and putting in place a plan to hide others from view by erecting bamboo screens. In a country where hundreds of millions of people struggle to survive, activists argue, such a policy is not only dishonest but immoral.

At times, it can feel as though there is no escape from beggars in India's biggest cities. Dirty, outstretched hands reach from beneath bundles of rags that locate themselves outside restaurants and tourist sites; in crowded markets, beggars missing limbs lurch forward on crutches; at major intersections, small, stunted children push their faces to the windows of the waiting traffic. They raise their hand to their mouth, showing their need to eat. Give me 10 rupees.

Begging is nothing new and in India there is an established tradition of alms-giving to the poor and needy, particularly at temples, a practice that not only benefits the recipient but – at least according to Hindu beliefs – also the giver.

But experts say that the problem has been exacerbated by soaring urban migration as increasing numbers of people leave poor rural parts of the country in search of better wages and a chance of securing a slice of the "shining India" that the authorities wish to showcase during the Games.

Indeed, a study carried out on Delhi's beggars found that only 5 per cent of them originally came from the city. Almost half were migrants from the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the latter being the state from which Pholphata and her friend said they had come to Delhi in search of work. The survey also found that a third of all beggars suffered some sort of disability while 30 per cent were below the age of 18.

In India there is no national law against begging. Instead, the authorities in Delhi have relied on an extension of the 1959 Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, legislation which prohibits all manner of acts of soliciting, including "the exposing or exhibiting with the object of obtaining or exhorting alms, any sore, wound, injury, deformity or disease, whether of a human or an animal".

Mr Gupta, the magistrate, does not look entirely comfortable sitting inside the mini-bus from where he will have to enforce this Victorian-sounding legislation. There is no air-conditioning inside the vehicle, just a small fan, and we are just weeks away from the onset of summer when temperatures could soar to 45C.

He explains that police visit likely begging spots with a member of the government's department of social welfare who will use a small digital camera to video anyone suspected of begging. "[Footage] is considered substantial evidence," says the magistrate. "I have to decide whether there is sufficient evidence."

The court's welfare officer, Joji John, reveals the footage he has taken of Pholphata, her children and her friend in a metro station. It seems pretty obvious the women are asking for money, but Pholphata is adamant they are not beggars. She says they arrived less than a week ago from Patna where they scratched a living removing dangerous bee hives and collecting the honey. She says they had been told they could find work here. "We have never been picked up before," insists Pholphata. "I only came here three or four days ago. My husband is still in the village. He is disabled."

Campaigners say the authorities' actions have made it a crime for people like Pholphata to be poor. Paramjeet Kaur, the director of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an organisation funded by ActionAid which works for the homeless, said the process of rounding people up underlined the failure to deliver appropriate welfare programmes.

"First of all we need to identify who these people are. They are mainly people who have migrated in economic distress. They have come in search of livelihoods," she said. "[Because of the Commonwealth Games] people are being rounded up and convicted by the law. But this is not the way to be. People should not be treated as eyesores."

Yet officials insist their efforts to deal with begging are not punitive. Manoj Kumar, the head of the social welfare department, said if a beggar is a first-time offender they will most likely be released. However, repeat offenders can be sentenced to spend up to three years in one of a dozen beggars' jails.

"It's not just detention. They get food, clothes and also vocational education. Many are handicapped but we find a job they can do," he added.

Fifteen miles north of Delhi, where the sprawling, run-down shanties finally fall away and are replaced by farmland, lies the village of Lumpur. It is the location of one of a dozen prisons to which the city's convicted beggars are sent. (Officials say that of the 2,500 beggars rounded up annually, around one third are convicted and jailed.)

Uttam Singh, who lost a leg many years ago to cancer and now walks with crutches, was brought to the prison last summer. He said he had a job at a tea stand outside a hospital in Delhi but that he had been grabbed by the police. When he told them he was not a beggar, he said, they refused to listen. "If you are sleeping in the road or just standing about you get picked up," said the 49-year-old, originally from Patna.

Stories like Mr Singh's were not hard to find among the melancholy and disturbed inmates of the prison, where the men – many suffering from physical disabilities or mental health issues – sat around listlessly in a large courtyard. Ram Bahadur said he had come to Delhi from a village near Kathmandu in Nepal to look for his brother. He said he had been receiving a free meal at a temple when the police grabbed him. He too said that when he protested, he was ignored. "Nobody knows I am here," he said in a soft voice.

Officials say that anyone who is not a repeat offender can be released if their family or else a charity will vouch for them, yet the inmates said it required the payment of a fee of 8,000 (£116) to 10,000 rupees. Two years ago, Raaj Mangal Prasad, an activist, exposed widespread corruption within children's homes and beggars prisons operated by the social welfare department with vast sums of money being siphoned off.

Even the official on duty at the home said he believed some of the inmates had been unfairly detained. However, there appeared to be no appeal process.

For Pholphata and her friend, there is no need for an appeal. Mr Gupta, the magistrate, listens to them and takes note of their promises never to beg again. The money they had collected – a total of about £2 – is returned to them and he watches as they ink their thumbs and make their mark in his register.

"I am letting them go on humanitarian grounds," he declares.

The women gather their things and quickly hurry away.

The struggle for survival: Vagrants in India

627,688 2001 census estimate of beggars in India.

58,500 Estimated number of beggars who take to the streets of Delhi every day.

95 per cent Proportion of Delhi's beggars who come from outside the city.

30 per cent Proportion of the city's beggars who are younger than 18.

2,500 Beggars rounded up annually in Delhi. A third of them are jailed.

4 Number of beggars in a survey found to be post-graduates supplementing their income by begging at weekends. Another five were graduates.

£116 Claimed fee for the release of an inmate from one of Delhi's 12 beggars' prisons.

Rs50 Lower estimate of typical daily income, about 72p. A few make up to Rs500.

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