In Hyderabad’s Indira Park, a wizened old lady, sits on the pavement, arms outstretched, crying out in her frail voice for alms.
Jayalakshmi has been living on the pavement outside Indira Park for the past three years. She is around 70 years of age, she estimates. On a good day, she earns Rs 60 by begging. On average she manages to collect Rs 40 a day.
“I used to work as a maid,” she explained. “I have one son and after his marriage, my daughter-in-law sent me out of their house. I have no place to sleep, so I sleep on this footpath. My son is a daily labourer.”
She only wants food and shelter. “I am unable to move or work,” she lamented.
About eight kilometres away, at Ameerpet sits 40-year-old Lakshmi, also a beggar. She came to Hyderabad as part of a group of beggars from Devarkunda village in Telangana’s Nalgonda district, Lakshmi said.
“We own agricultural land in our village but we are unable to make ends meet as the rains are erratic and there is no water for irrigation,” said Lakshmi. “I have to take care of my five daughters and that is why I have chosen to get into this begging profession,” she explained.
Each member of her begging group makes at least Rs 500 per day, she said. “I came yesterday and will leave after two days,” she said.
People like Lakshmi constitute 98% of the 14,000-strong population of beggars in the city, maintains the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, which categorises them as “fake beggars”. The civic body has recently launched a drive to make Hyderabad a “beggar-free society”. Most beggars in the city are part of an organised racket, the Corporation maintains, and indulge in illegal activities under the guise of begging.
“We are ready to help the genuine beggars,” Hyderabad Mayor Bonthu Ram Mohan told Scroll.in. “But people who have chosen begging as a profession and are doing illegal activities will be punished by law,” he added. “We are starting a toll-free number for people to complain if they face any nuisance from beggars. If you find any beggar, bring them to us and we will take care of them,” he said.
Over 200 NGOs and student volunteers have been roped in by the civic body to clear Hyderabad of beggars.
“It was found in a survey that on average, a beggar earns Rs 1,000-2,000 per day, operating with an annual income of more than Rs 24 lakhs,” claimed B Shankar Narayanan, General Secretary of Federation of NGOs of Beggar Free Society. “People of other states are joining these beggars to commit crimes. These beggars are into drugs, prostitution and money lending. They are spoiling [the] city,” he added.
Registering and rehabilitation
The municipal corporation is appealing to "genuine" beggars to register themselves for rehabilitation. They are promising skills training for those who want to work, school enrolment for children who beg and a place to stay for the elderly in old age homes. The civic body is also promising food and shelter to these beggars.
As part of the drive, Hyderabadis too are being warned not to give alms to beggars. “Beggars are not leaving their profession, because people give money in temples and mosques due to their sentiments, said Narayana. “In our roadshows, we say: ‘Not only punish the beggars who are begging also punish the people who are giving.'”
Said Mayor Mohan: “Think twice before giving money to the beggars as they might be millionaires.” Drug peddling, prostitution and selling children, he maintains, are par for the course as far as the organised begging racket is concerned.
Narayana, who is working with the municipal corporation on the drive, said that several initiatives were planned to help beggars. For example, visitors to temples will be encouraged to drop money in a ‘hundi' rather than give it to beggars. “Beggars have to register their names in these temples and they will get the money from the ‘hundi’ accordingly," he said. "We are going to catch all the beggars – they have to give their addresses. If they have family, we will send them back and we will send genuine beggars to rehabilitation centres.”
Funding for this would be augmented by corporations part of their CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] support, he added.
Beggars could also be employed in the 2,500 Sulabh toilets he hopes the city will build. “Presently, we have very few [toilets] and these too are locked due to lack of manpower to care for them," he said. "We can give employment to 2,500 people with an income of Rs 200 per day.”
But others are sceptical about whether the drive would work. Experts point to a similar drive introduced in the early 2000s by Mayor Teegala Krishna Reddy, which failed miserably. Activists say there are other concerns too.
“At night, they are going to provide shelter, but what about during the day?” asked child rights activist Achyuta Rao. “In shelters, many illegal activities might happen. Is there any police security for these beggars who will stay here? Who is going to track this? Also, they say that they will catch the fake beggars and put them in jail. I would like to ask under which section are they going to be in jail?”
As the debate rages on, in Hyderabad’s Basheerbagh, a man and a woman sat by the side of the road, arms outstretched for money. Sixty-year-old Ramulu and 50-year-old Kamalamma hail from Mochimandalam village in Suryapeta area. “We don’t want to work anymore,” said Kamalamma categorically when asked if they would take up the rehabilitation scheme being offered by the corporation to beggars. “If they stop us from begging, we will go back to our native place.”
Ramulu seconded her view. “Yes, we will go back to our native place," he said. "We are begging for our food and I use some of the money for a drink too. I used to be a daily wage labourer. I don’t have any work now so I started begging."
Frail Jayalakshmi, however, perked up at the thought of food and shelter being provided by the municipal authorities. “If the government is ready to provide me with food and shelter, I am ready to move anywhere,” she said. “I just need food to live. If they provide this, I am ready to move.”