As India's capital gears up for the October games, orders have gone out to clear the streets of beggars. Mobile anti-begging squads were formed last September to sweep the poor off the streets. Every morning teams of police, backed by mobile courtrooms, roam the city targeting the wealthy areas of South Delhi and tourist precincts.
In the past three months, the units have arrested 224 people and sentenced 124 to at least a year in one of the 12 beggar homes across the state. About 1514 beggars were committed to Delhi beggar homes last year, where the government claims to provide training in courses such as carpentry, tailoring and weaving. A free round the clock Beggar Hotline is set to be launched in April to allow people to report offenders to a Beggar Control Room.
There are an estimated 60,000 beggars on Delhi's streets according to figures in the Guardian newspaper. Many estimates put the figure much higher – and tens of thousands more people live rough on roadside scraps of land. The idea behind the push is that begging doesn’t do much for the "Incredible India" image the authorities want to promote. "Before the 2010 Commonwealth Games, we want to finish the problem of beggary from Delhi," the city's social welfare minister, Mangat Ram Singhal, announced at the launch of the initiative. One social welfare officer said: "The main motive is to create terror in them so that they will stop begging."
Thousands of shanty towns have also been flattened as part of the city’s pre games facelift, leaving countless more homeless. The Games village has been built on the site of a demolished shanty town. The beggar crackdown has been heavily criticised by aid organisations. Sushil Kumar Singh, a legal aid lawyer told The Australian newspaper the mobile units – which work alongside the city's Beggar Court – often wrongly arrest travelling day workers who depend on free meals from temples or mosques. "They're not beggars, they're labourers, but they're all poor and at some point or another may need free food," Mr Singh says. "Some people say begging is a lucrative business but if that were the case, we would all be doing it."
Ratnabai Kale was picked up at the start of the drive in September, along with her daughter Aarti, 16, and her sister Shobha, 30. "They said, 'You're not going on that bus. Get on to this one.' I asked why; they said because we were beggars. I said, 'First of all, we're not beggars, we're honest labourers', But the police didn't listen,” she said. “They told us we'd be given a four-year sentence in jail if we didn't go along."
By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children