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Mobile Begging Courts

Seeing is believing, and indeed in the crowded streets leaving Delhi there were less beggars, where usually cars and auto rickshaws would be swarmed. I had heard something was afoot in preparation for the Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi in 2010, and that beggars were on a short list for removal.

It seems “anti-beggary” laws had been enacted for this purpose and a huge drive was going on. I’m always skeptical of such drives, remembering all too well how our efforts at “tagging” on the streets to support organizing campaigns were often prosecuted under similar anti-begging laws in the United States. One of our organizers was even convicted of begging in Denver several decades ago! Mostly in the USA these ordinances turn on traffic safety issues, and in Delhi given the chaos in the streets that would be a hard sell.

In a new twist the Municipal Corporation of Delhi has set up “mobile begging courts,” and if that doesn’t sound like a perversion of any pretense of justice and due process, I’m not sure what does. There stand to be a dozen with two of them already up and running with 55 people already tried by such “courts.” This being India, there are elaborate screens to separate the those people who are employed, but living in the streets from those people who are, so to speak, employed in the streets as beggars. They also try to determine if this is a one-off thing or a systematic way the individual is making a living. The hard case beggars are the ones being targeted.

If “guilty,” the person is shuttled off to one of a dozen shelters, and then, if from Bihar, Rajasthan, or Uttar Pradesh, exported back “home.”

I hate to imagine the problems this involves, past the question of basic justice, which is clearly absent. The beggar camps have a max capacity of 2000, while some estimate 100,000 live in this way on the streets. Legal aid lawyers have found that most arrested in this manner are actually hawkers or laborers to whom the streets are also no stranger.

There is no question that all of this is a problem. The least the poor can do, as we know for a universal truth, is to be invisible, and of course silent. Beggars are neither.

This is a plan without a program, therefore a puzzle and paradox that must be solved in Delhi, and elsewhere in India, before there is punishment without purpose.

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Wade Rathke is the founder and former Chief Organizer of ACORN. He currently serves as the Chief Organizer of Community Organizations International (Formally Acorn International) and SEIU Local 100, has close to 40 years of experience. He has worked for and founded a series of organizations dedicated to winning social justice, workers rights, and a democracy where “the people shall rule”.

Wade Rathke and his family live in New Orleans, Louisiana.