Beggars Aweigh

India’s fast-growing economy has engendered many new millionaires and billionaires in various sectors — aviation, technology, telecoms, retail, hospitality, to name some.

Add one new category — beggars, exemplars of literal trickle-down growth, given the growing numbers of affluent Indians whose religion and superstition impels them to dole out enough alms to make some beggars rich. The media have recently highlighted the case of Mohammed Jakir, an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, for instance, who has risen to the very top of his profession, with a net worth estimated over Rs1million (US$23,479).

Mendicancy has its dark side, with organized gangs amputating limbs, deliberately maiming children and buying crippled children to put on the street. But according to the reports, the 42-year-old amputee, who begged in Indian cities for two decades, is today living large in Bangladesh, a property-owner, husband and father of five children, including four girls.

``I earned a lot in Mumbai (India’s commercial hub). Indians have sympathy for the handicapped,’’ Jakir told local reporters. ``My earnings were so good that I could marry Naseema, a teenage girl, and buy a house at Murtinagar and raise a family with her.’’

Nor is Jakir alone. Some months back, the media focused on a female beggar named Sarvatia Devi from the impoverished state of Bihar, who pays an annual insurance premium of Rs36,000 ($800), a princely sum for many.

She had money stashed away in bank accounts and traveled across the country, including on holidays and pilgrimage.

'It's fun traveling on trains free of cost. I board any train and beg till I reach my destination,' she said on TV.

There have also been several instances of beggars fighting cases in courts by hiring lawyers to defend their right to beg after being picked up by the police. One beggar found dead on the roadside in Mumbai a couple of years ago had stashed hundreds of thousands of rupees under the mattress on which he died.

For some time, observers have been saying that it pays to be a beggar in India. According to estimates, in Mumbai alone beggary is a Rs4 billion business, a Rs2 billion industry in Delhi, employing 50,000 people, operated by groups of people who run the business as gang lords and mafia.

There is a deep rooted nexus that involves local politicians, municipal authorities, police and the underworld, that charges protection money from each beggar and ensures that the business runs smoothly. While the dark and cruel side is impossible to ignore, the organized aspects of the begging business have come to the fore.

Most beggars originate from the more than 200 million Indians (mostly peasants and landless laborers) who live in impoverished conditions, surviving on less than $1 a day, and some, like Jakir, are illegal immigrants usually from Bangladesh.

Innumerable visitors to India, when they return home, carry back images of beggars knocking desperately on their car windows or pestering them at tourist locations. The begging business model is, however, considered to be sound. Indians are generous during holy occasions such as festivals or temple visits, celebrations such as marriages or success in jobs or examinations.

Families have followed for generations old traditions of giving away alms regularly to the poor, to cleanse their sins and ward away evil eyes.

Begging in India works on a deep-seated belief that sorrows end and happiness is sustained by helping the poor. Beggars, like cows (revered as mata or mother due to the milk she provides), are tolerated on Indian roads as the embodiment of Brahman, or the spiritual lord who pervades everybody. It's a noble principle except that ideally the alms should be channeled via more organized forums that create employment opportunities rather than through car windows or thrown at poor souls on the sidewalk, the last link of a bigger chain of exploiters.

Indeed, it is in essence a wasteful industry centered on a parasitic existence and more often about taking advantage of the poverty stricken, sometimes with horrendous consequences. Although Jakir claims to be an amputee, it is quite likely that his limbs were deliberately chopped off by the beggar mafia, in order to present a sorry picture to donors. Gangs often go into the poverty-stricken countryside to buy crippled children to put them on the streets

Recently, noting the failure of the Delhi government and the police to curb public begging, a court directed both to place beggars in detention houses and train them in trades.

Although police are investigating whether 'organized begging' is run by an interstate mafia, officials privately admit that they are quite helpless against permanently rounding up beggars because of legal and cultural issues that look at begging as a social rather than criminal problem.

Indian social activists could perhaps follow the example of Bangladesh's 2006 Nobel Prize Laureate Mohammed Yunus, who has included the category of beggars in his massive micro credit program. Beggars are provided loans to procure items such as toys, food or stationary items, a process that allows them ultimately to move up the economic and social ladder. Many have managed to set up their own small businesses, such as retail shops.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com