The Delhi police and the national capital’s Aam Aadmi Party government finally seem to agree on one thing: that Delhi does not have a mafia controlling begging operations in the city. However, while some activists agree with the police findings, others are not convinced.
In the run up to India's 70th Independence Day, a team comprising Crime Branch personnel was asked to ascertain if such groups operated in the city. The decision to conduct this study was announced in July a few days after the Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government said that there were no such mafias existed.
The results are out, and may surprise some people.
“As far as our findings suggest, there is no such begging mafia in Delhi,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Bhisham Singh.
Singh said that the Crime Branch was given 60 days for its investigation. "We set up 10 surveillance points in specific areas with a large number of beggars,” he said. “[They were] monitored round-the-clock, and over 200 beggars were thoroughly interviewed. But we found no mafia or organised racket controlling them.”
Work of fiction?
Financial capital Mumbai is known to have organised begging rackets, with gang-leaders – who are even known to mutilate individuals for better business – pocketing most of the earnings. And though over the years Delhi has been suspected of having similar begging rackets, previous investigations too have not found any evidence to prove that is indeed the case.
“The suspected presence of a begging mafia has been in discussion for years,” said Ashwani Kumar, principal secretary in the Delhi government’s Social Welfare Department. "[The] department has conducted interviews of thousands of beggars over time, and repeated the exercise time and again but no mafia as such has been traced till date.”
Kumar added that works of fiction, mainly popular Indian movies, have depicted begging rackets in India so frequently that the line between myth and reality could have blurred at some point.
He admitted that an informal network did exist, and beggars fought over areas in the city, but no evidence has emerged to suggest that this had become a criminal operation.
“It is true that the same faces are often seen begging in the same areas," said Kumar. "But that too doesn’t prove the presence of any organised racket. The pattern is the result of an informal network which beggars become part of after having spent years on the streets.”
He did, however, add a caveat. “It also cannot be certified that no begging mafia exists at all,” he said. "What we conclude is what our findings suggest so far.”
A middle class creation?
Harsh Mander, a human rights activist who has worked with homeless children in several metro cities in India, said that the perception that beggars are part of a criminal syndicate is “manufactured by the middle class in order to legitimise their own indifference.”
He added: “The notion that all beggars, especially children, work as part of organised gangs is untrue and the perception is built up through popular media.”
But Rakesh Senger of the non-governmental organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan, whose team assisted Delhi Police in its investigation, said that though studies conducted so far did not yield any results, one could not conclude that organised begging groups did not operate in Delhi.
He said that the conclusion that organised begging groups do not operate in Delhi may be the result of legal and procedural technicalities as authorities rarely invoke the appropriate provisions related to forced begging when they come across such cases, making it hard to identify organised rackets.
"We are still working on the subject,” said Senger. “So far we have interviewed thousands of street children and have come across clues which suggest forced begging does exist in the city.”
Senger recalled two specific cases where charges related to forced begging were not invoked. For instance, in 2007, the Delhi Police busted a gang in South Delhi after they were found to be bringing children from villages in Rajasthan on the pretext of jobs and forcing them into begging. In 2011, the police arrested a woman who was accused of forcing children to beg while pretending to run a homeless shelter.
Said Senger: “The police solved both cases. But while the first one was categorised as a case of human trafficking, the second one turned out to be an illegal adoption racket...In both cases, the perpetrators were involved in forced begging and in a very systematic manner but in the police books, they were not recorded as cases of organised begging rackets when they actually could have been.”
Previous studies inconclusive
This is not the first time the police has tried to ascertain whether a begging mafia exists in Delhi, said Amod Kanth, a former Delhi Police officer and founder of the non-governmental organisation Prayas, which works with marginalised women and children. “Even 20 years ago, the police received unverified inputs on beggars being picked up and dropped at specific points," said Kanth. “Teams were formed that thoroughly interviewed beggars but nothing suggesting the presence of organised rackets came up.”