The art of begging

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We may pity beggars or be repulsed by them, but the fact of the matter is, begging can be very lucrative! A. Radhakrishnan cites instances of beggar millionaires, and analyses why begging is such a part and parcel of the Indian society.

I know that a man who shows me his wealth is like the beggar who shows me his poverty; they are both looking for alms from me, the rich man for the alms of my envy, the poor man for the alms of my guilt. – Ben Hecht

Of late, begging, has become an art form. With a large populace which wants to earn and roll in money without working for it, I would not be surprised if in the years to come, even MBA courses in begging are offered by universities!

Begging is the oldest universal profession and beggars have existed since before the dawn of recorded history. It has also been called panhandle, perhaps from the notion of an arm stuck out like a panhandle. It is the practice of imploring others to grant a favour, often money, with little or no expectation of reciprocation.

Espied in public places, transport routes, urban parks, near busy markets, rubbish dumps, road sides, traffic lights, under flyovers, and wherever tourists abound; the frail, crippled, and the mentally challenged, share space.

Beggars have different methods of pulling at your heartstrings. They peer into taxi windows, bedraggled, haggard, and breaking into a sudden smile when a few coins are dropped into their palms, perhaps out of exasperation or a momentary flash of pity. Often quite persistent, they won’t take no for an answer. They, including children, can be very deceptive.

A lucrative business

Rough estimates put beggars in India, at around five lakhs, despite the fact that begging is a crime in most states. According to a 2016 report, at 54%, India has the highest multidimensional poverty, thanks to abject poverty, distress migration from rural villages, unavailability of employment, an outcome of physical disability, mental illness, and drug addiction.

A multi-million organised business controlled by human trafficking cartels, run by dons who kidnap and maim children; an estimated 300,000 children across India are drugged, beaten and made to beg every day. For the privilege of begging in a certain territory, each beggar hands over their takings to the gang’s ringleader, who keeps a significant share of it.

Mumbai is home to an unverified three lakh beggars, worth Rs. 180 crore business annually. A small percentage of 39% of beggars suffer also from one or other psychiatric illnesses. Renting babies who are drugged and getting people to buy milk powder from particular shops which charge more, and sharing the excess, are some scams.

Traditionally in India, giving alms to the needy is built into the social fabric. We can ignore beggars, but then emotion and sensitivity tugs. Can we ignore a paralytic person crawling on the ground, or not give to an old man with a deformed foot limping through the streets, or suffering from leprosy, or comfort a blind man singing on a train?

The legal angle

There is restriction, prohibition or criminalisation of begging at various times and for various reasons, with an aim to preserve public order or to induce people to work rather than to beg for economic or moral reasons, like the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA, 1959). 

This law enables officials of the Social Welfare Department assisted by the police, to conduct raids to pick up beggars who they then try in special courts called ‘beggar courts’. If convicted, they are sent to certified institutions called ‘beggar homes’ or ‘Sewa Kutir’ for a period ranging from one to ten years for detention, vocational training, and employment. Such beggars who have spent years on the street find it very difficult to live in confined, abysmal living spaces.

Nutan, a detainee at the Beggars Receiving Home in Yerawada hired a lawyer for Rs 2, 500 to return to her comfort zone for survival. She didn’t want to spend time learning skills like making broom and baskets, when she could make more through begging.

A change in attitude is called for as our beggary laws are a throwback to the centuries old European vagrancy laws, which instead of addressing the socio-economic issues, makes beggars criminally responsible. India, as a nation, needs to have a comprehensive programme and reorientation of the existing programmes. There should be therapeutic and rehabilitative replacement of the philanthropic approach.

Ironically, there is the Mangal Bank at Gaya in Bihar, India’s first co-operative bank run by beggars, of beggars, and for beggars, who depend for survival on alms from the temple Maa Manglagauri Mandir. They can open an account and save the alms they receive, get loans and help without appropriate proof of identification.

We may not recognise it, but beggars by living their torturous lives, are emotionally attaching themselves as part and parcel of our society. They have an identity, when we call them ‘beggars’. They are not stealing nor are they depending on us for our mercy. They are giving us a chance to participate in charity and tap the soft corner of our heart, says one school of thought.

The government has to actively create jobs, have tough penalties for child labour and abuse and rehabilitate every, not only disabled beggars. By raising awareness about not giving into charity, we can strive for a long term solution.

Case studies aplenty!

Let’s end with a list of a few of the new breed of professional ‘rich’ beggars in India, who own apartments, properties and a huge bank balance, but yet are content with begging.

Bharat Jain (49), India’s richest beggar mostly works in the Parel region of Mumbai. An owner of two 70 lakh apartments, he rents a juice shop for 10,000 monthly rent.  Earning approximately Rs 60,000 per month, he lives with his father, wife, brother and two schooling sons.

Krishna Kumar Gite begs near Charni Road, Mumbai and owns a flat worth Rs five lakhs at Nallasopara where he lives with his brother. 

Sarvatia Devi, from Patna is the most famous female beggar of this country, paying Rs 36,000 as insurance premium annually, and even got her daughter married.

Sambhaji Kale, is through begging, a flat owner, owns two individual houses and a piece of land in Sholapur, Maharashtra, and has huge investments in the bank.

Massu/Malana (60), is the coolest. Dressed in spotless clothes, he takes an auto-rickshaw to high-end Lokhandwala, Mumbai, frequented by Bollywood, every evening. He changes into his beggar attire and during his working hours, has a complete sway over the area, with no other beggar in his vicinity. He begs from 8 pm to 3 am, and takes an auto back home. With assets worth Rs 30 lakh in properties alone, he earns Rs 1,000 to 1,500 per day. Home is a one bedroom apartment at Amboli in Andheri (west). He owns another such apartment nearby at Amboli, which he has rented out for Rs 8,000 per month. He shares the apartment with his wife, two sons, and a daughter-in-law.. He has substantial bank savings, but doesn’t reveal details.

This concept of people living a dual life, both of a beggar and a rather well-off member of the society is not a new phenomenon, though. In 1891, author Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes based short story Man with the twisted lip had written about a journalist, who became a temporary beggar in order to research for a story. But after earning a lot of money during that time, which eclipsed his newspaper earnings, he decided to make it his permanent vocation!

#A vagabond sitting by the roadside doing nothing, waiting for alms is asked by a good man why he ‘does not work with dignity and earn money?’ The beggar says ‘why should I do that?’ He gets a reply ‘you will be rich and then carefree’. The beggar responds with a laugh, ‘So then what am I doing now? Living carefree!’


A.Radhakrishnan

The writer is a Pune-based freelance journalist, short story writer and poet.

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