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The mafia of middle-class convenience

Sabina Yasmin Rahman | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on September 23, 2016
Double whammy: As if the most vulnerable sections of society didn’t have enough problems already, the government compounds their misery by locking them up under draconian laws. Photo: Nagara Gopal

Double whammy: As if the most vulnerable sections of society didn’t have enough problems already, the government compounds their misery by locking them up under draconian laws. Photo: Nagara Gopal   -  The Hindu

Salud: Police in Delhi have started to acknowledge that begging is a structural social problem rather than a crime. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Salud: Police in Delhi have started to acknowledge that begging is a structural social problem rather than a crime. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf   -  The Hindu

Mob rules: Without a shred of evidence, the myth of a begging mafia has persisted, thanks to minimal academic engagement and middle-class apathy. Photo: S James

Mob rules: Without a shred of evidence, the myth of a begging mafia has persisted, thanks to minimal academic engagement and middle-class apathy. Photo: S James   -  The Hindu

Beggars are roaming on the roads of Lutyens' in Delhi. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.

Beggars are roaming on the roads of Lutyens' in Delhi. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt.   -  The Hindu

After yet another investigation into the possibility of a begging mafia in Delhi, the police and the state government have concluded that no such thing exists. Is anybody surprised at this?

In July, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal directed Social Welfare Minister Sandeep Kumar to put an immediate stop to his “anti-begging drive”, calling it an “inhuman and futile exercise”. Earlier that month, the Commissioner of Police, Alok Kumar Verma, who shares Kumar’s vision of a “tourist-friendly” and “beggar-free” Delhi, had directed the Crime Branch to crack down on the “begging mafia” in the city, according to The Indian Express. The Delhi Police launched its drive in the face of official reports in the past repeatedly suggesting what its two-month investigation would only confirm — “there is no begging mafia in Delhi”.

Losing sight of the real problem

Begging, commonly understood as soliciting alms, is also variously referred to as “panhandling” or “mendicancy”. The question of begging is often presented to us as a morally perplexing choice between competing values. It pits the public concern of sanitised city-spaces against the expressive liberty of the beggar. However, even the barest engagement with the issue reveals such juxtaposing to be an attempt at obscuring the primary problem: anti-begging laws seek to strip off its poorest citizens the fundamental human right to speech and freedom of expression. The notorious Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA), 1959, (adopted by Delhi in 1960) criminalises begging and makes no distinction between beggars and homeless individuals. As a consequence, the wrongful arrest of daily-wage labourers and street vendors, who do not beg but live on the streets, is a regular occurrence.

I have been working with begging communities and custodial institutions, both in Delhi and Mumbai, since 2010. That has made me realise how pervasive the myth of a begging mafia is, despite an astonishing lack of credible empirical knowledge related to begging in the Indian context. Begging remains sorely under-researched within the social sciences, which partly explains why the perception of it as an ‘organised crime’ stubbornly remains unchallenged (including in the academic discourse). The rare mention that begging finds is often smothered by debates surrounding chronic poverty and crime, which does little to facilitate a systematic, thorough understanding of begging.

Thankfully, there is a small but growing interest in the study of begging in many parts of the world. Some of these studies are not only sensitive in their engagement with the subject, they also challenge the usual negative portrayal of begging individuals in terms of criminality, child exploitation, manipulation of public sympathies, laziness, and so on to postulate an alternative understanding of begging. Kate Swanson’s excellent book Begging as a Path to Progress (2010) is one such example. Swanson, an associate professor of geography at San Diego State University, has worked with indigenous women and children who migrate to major Ecuadorian cities, take up begging as “work”, and view it as “a path to progress”.

According to Swanson, the begging tactics they used are “instances of reworking and resilience” that suggest “indigenous women and children [beggars] are not passive victims in the face of oppressive socio-economic conditions. Rather, they actively engage with and rework the forces that affect their everyday lives.”

Swanson further argues that the unflattering rhetoric surrounding begging populations deflects from the real problems associated with a neoliberal system that fails to redistribute wealth to the poor, and shifts attention to the supposed vices of beggars instead. The ‘begging mafia’ in India seems to be an extension of the same rhetoric.

A field perspective on what begging is not

Time and again, begging has been conflated with crimes such as human trafficking and people smuggling. Governments respond by stepping up anti-poor measures, with ruthless drives around the city cracking down on illusory ‘begging rackets’.

Perhaps the state finds it easier to hide the country’s poor by incarcerating them than devising a welfare policy that empowers underprivileged people and promotes their well-being. But with the worsening rural agrarian crisis swelling the numbers of the urban poor, institutionalisation is no longer a convenient option.

In fact, the Indian state would fare well if it paid attention to the number of research papers that indicate a simple fact: an efficient welfare system not only breaks the vicious cycle of poverty and crime, but is also more cost-effective than incarceration.

Today, awareness about the lack of adequate amenities within custodial set-ups has increased, and so has the understanding of required interventions. Supervisors and probation officers in these Beggars’ Homes acknowledge the deficiencies of an approach that criminalises begging without any commitment to rehabilitation.

Officials in these institutions, both in Delhi and Mumbai, deny the presence of a begging mafia, based on their working experience, and attribute such notions to sensationalised media accounts. The stigma of being poor and being labelled by the criminal justice system are mutually reinforcing in the construction of the beggar’s identity. There have to be mechanisms within a welfare state that allow, for instance, a young destitute mother who is begging, or selling cheap articles to passers-by at traffic signals, and sleeping on the pavements with her children, to be seen as socially vulnerable and in need of welfare and support and not as a social threat.

Due to sensitisation workshops conducted by various NGOs and human rights activists, and through their own engagement with begging and homeless populations within their limited powers and resources, police in Delhi have started to acknowledge that begging is a structural social problem rather than a crime. This is a major shift in perspective since the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

More recently, during my fieldwork, a policeman on his beat explained to me, “Arresting beggars is useless. Many of them are substance abusers and need to be sent to de-addiction clinics. People should be provided with some sort of vocational training so they can earn their livelihood and live with dignity. But now what happens is they get released from the institutions and start begging again, since they are poor and have no skills. Without training facilities, there is no rehabilitation.”

He added that government provisions for more healthcare, housing, and open shelters would also make it easier to maintain law and order and keep the city clean. He further lamented the plight of the police, who are easy scapegoats for the broader failures of the system. “Everyone says that the police doesn’t do anything. If we follow orders and pick beggars, the human rights people hound us; when we don’t arrest, then the public curses us. How much can an ordinary policeman do… should we maintain law and order or do social service?”

Who needs a “begging mafia”?

Going by the eagerness with which our institutions strive to translate reel life into real life, it seems that it is our aspiring middle class that clutches on to these dramatised and McDonaldised depictions of India’s urban poor. It is typical of the upper-caste middle-clas citizenry to produce most of our government servants and corporate jobholders.

And yet, in the midst of rapid urbanisation, they act aggressively, entitled as they feel to the fruits of development. They operate based on a rationality that claims primary rights over everything urban. This includes unrestricted access to safe city-spaces, which, if not begin, must at least, end with them.

This class constitutes not only members of the state apparatus that implements anti-poor laws and conducts anti-begging drives, but also relatively passive non-state actors, like many of us, who uncritically consume, internalise, and regurgitate unqualified views about the most vulnerable sections of society.

These are the people we continually pour middle-class-guilt-masqueraded-as-morality on to, by alternately labelling them ‘lazy’, ‘unproductive’, ‘a public nuisance’, and so on. As dutiful members of the upper middle-class, we find it incredible that the begging mafia of Slumdog Millionaire fame (a favourite urban myth, turned into a dangerously monolithic portrayal of the Other from the Global South) may not exist at all.

These constant efforts at establishing the presence of a begging mafia, in spite of evidence to the contrary, are not just ill-conceived but also indicative of the urban middle-class’s desperate need for a self-fulfilling prophecy. It validates our middle-class morality underlying a social arrangement that allows civil inaction and victim-blaming to fester, while never having to acknowledge the real problems of structural inequality and systemic bias. Ultimately, it seems it is we, and not the beggars, who need the begging mafia to exist.

The beggars manage fine on their own, even when we don’t bother with sparing them our empathy or change — provided we don’t worsen their predicament by adding our casual intolerance to the might of the state.

Needless to say, Kejriwal’s sentiments on the anti-begging drive are still unpopular. Most people are unwilling to see that to arrest and incarcerate the most vulnerable sections of the society is to marginalise them further. Criminalisation of begging, therefore, is nothing short of the state aiming its coercive apparatus at the poor by denying them equal rights to life and livelihood, and shrinking from its welfare responsibilities towards the citizens most in need.

Sabina Yasmin Rahman is a PhD student in Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her research is on begging in Delhi and Mumbai

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Published on September 23, 2016
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