Six-year-old Anjali* has never seen a card swiping machine but she knows which food outlets in Delhi’s Connaught Place accept payment by debit and credit cards. On Sunday afternoon, she stood outside a popular coffee shop in the central Delhi shopping arcade asking passersby for money, or to buy her food.
“If they say that they do not have cash, I bring them here or take them to the other shop,” she said, pointing towards another outlet in the adjacent block. “People have stopped offering money for almost one month now. They say that they do not have any cash. But some of them do buy me food with their cards.”
Since November 8, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were being withdrawn from midnight, beggars in the national capital have been having a tougher time than normal. The cash crisis has forced people to hoard currency, meaning few are willing to spare change for alms or donations.
Modi acknowledged this situation in a speech on Saturday although he used the situation for comic relief, joking about how he has seen a WhatsApp forward of a beggar using a card-swipe machine to get alms. – (The video he cited turned out to be two years old.)
Anjali lives in Jhandewalan, less than three km from Connaught Place, with her older sister, who is also a minor. The two girls spend the day in Connaught Place, asking the office goers and shoppers in the business district for money and food.
“By now, I know which of them [outlets] do not accept cards and which ones do,” she said, as she waited outside the coffee shop while a woman who agreed to buy her older sister some food went inside.
In Connaught Place, five-year-old Suraj*, who was attempting to sell ball-point pens to the shoppers in the area – a pair for Rs 10 – said that sales have dropped in the past few weeks.
A woman, who is related to Suraj and was selling tiaras on the pavement, said: “Till one month ago, we [a group of four, including Suraj, and two other children] managed to sell over 100 pairs of ball pens in a day. Now people do not buy them easily.”
Nothing to send home
A few kilometres away, the situation is repeating itself. “We have cut down our expenses to the minimum even in terms of food and medical expenses,” said Pinki, a member of a group of transgender persons who beg outside the Kalkaji temple in South Delhi on weekends.
“Alms have dropped by over 80%,” she said. “On a normal Saturday, each one of us would earn Rs 300 in an hour, when the visitor footfall is at its peak. A weekend day’s earning – in anything around four active hours – would not be less than Rs 1,000, a part of which we have to contribute to our guru. Due to the cash crisis, the weekend earnings have dropped to less than Rs 200.”
Pinki, who is in her late twenties, said that she funds her younger brother’s education with her earnings, sending Rs 4,500 to her family in Varanasi every month. She has two bank accounts.
“Life is difficult for people like us who have no other source of income, even when we are ready to work,” she said. “Because of the cash crisis, I am facing a financial crunch and have not been able to send any money home this month.”
On weekdays, Pinki and her group visit homes where a baby boy has been born to celebrate the birth. The families of these babies usually give Pinki and her colleagues cash in exchange for their blessings.
Members of the group say that these visits are their main source of earnings. But like thousands of other people, demonetisation has also had an impact on them.
“After November 8, most families have offered us donations only in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes,” said Pinki. “I got some of them exchanged initially and later deposited the rest in my bank account.”
‘An emergency-like situation’
Near Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah, a 52-year-old beggar and a few others of nearly the same age huddled outside a food stall to which someone had just donated money so that food could be distributed among the beggars there.
On his person, he had an Aadhaar document that identified him as Hari Lal.
“People have stopped giving any money,” Lal said. “Except for a very few, they [visitors at the dargah] pass by without donating anything. What would people do? They too are short on cash.”
Lal was a construction worker but about eight years ago, he was permanently disabled below his waist after he fell off from high up on the scaffolding of an under-construction building. He started begging after his brother disowned him and he was forced to shift into a friend’s room at a slum in Ghaziabad, which adjoins Delhi.
“Three times in my life, I have seen the government bring changes in high-denomination notes but never under such an emergency-like situation,” he said. “In the past few weeks, my earnings have witnessed such fall that getting my daily bread has become uncertain, leave alone saving anything for future emergencies.”
* The names of minors found begging in Connaught Place have been changed to protect their identities.
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