Begging during festivals: India’s inability to address poverty and homelessness
Several people from across poorer regions migrate to urban areas around Ramzan hoping to get a share of zakat.
With his clean shirt, skullcap and a well-trimmed beard, Safat Ali doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone you would find among the destitutes outside a mosque. “I am no beggar,” he says categorically. “I come here to pray every day. Afterwards, I quietly sit at the gate.”
The devout give him alms anyway. Ali’s polio-afflicted legs are all the signal they need. Earlier this year, Ali had to leave his hometown Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh after unpaid debts ran his grocery store aground. He could not find a job in Mumbai, so he moved to Pune. Ramzan was about to begin. During this month, a lot of the devout undertake zakat — an Islamic tradition that calls upon a person of means to donate 2.5% of his wealth and annual savings to the needy.
From the first week of May, Ali started making daily trips to Kausar Bagh mosque at Kondhwa, a Pune suburb with a sizeable Muslim population. Soon, he was earning enough to pay the rent of his slum dwelling near the railway station, look after his wife and two kids, who had accompanied him to the city, and also send a few thousand rupees to his parents back in Gorakhpur. Of what he will manage to save, Ali wants to invest in reviving his grocery store.
Like Ali, several people from across poorer regions migrate to urban areas around Ramzan hoping to get a share of zakat. Their numbers are difficult to ascertain — there have been no studies conducted on such migration — but the trend is observed in many parts of the Muslim world.
The practice is frowned upon by many in the community, and fuels debate that must weigh tough ethical questions. All those who give alms aren’t necessarily wealthy and deem it a religious duty. They want to be sure that the recipient of zakat or sadaqah (optional charity) isn’t someone who’s feigning need or otherwise exploiting the pious during their holy month.
Community organisers in many parts are now mounting efforts to regulate the practice. But they run into the difficult task of determining who really is needy. Discussion groups on Islamic issues online witness debates on the issue during Ramzan.
Newspapers in Pakistan regularly report of beggars “capturing” roads and markets in cities such as Islamabad and Rawalpindi ahead of Ramzan. Intelligence agencies in Bangladesh estimated last year that the number of beggars in Dhaka had doubled to nearly 90,000 during the holy month. Domestic and international migration is rampant in oil-rich countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE during this time. The UAE government passed a stringent anti-begging law in 2018 and launched a crackdown against offenders. Of the 243 arrested, 60% were found to have entered the country on visit visas.
“Begging is believed to be a crime in Islam. But Islam also says that if someone comes to you in need, don’t turn him away,” said Syed Zafar Mahmood, a former civil servant and founder of Zakat Foundation of India. “Charity done during Ramzan is believed to fetch higher rewards. So this trend [of economic migration of beggars], which is already a pan-India phenomenon, takes its toll during this time,” he said, adding that he did not support the detention of those found begging, nevertheless.
The 2011 census in India found 3.7 lakh beggars across India. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, followed across India, criminalises begging and makes it punishable by imprisonment up to 10 years.
However, many are known to migrate to the affluent parts of India such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Hyderabad around Ramzan. Surveys and statistics are hard to come by, but activists and community leaders say that the number of destitutes around mosques and areas with a predominantly Muslim population visibly spike during this time. Similar trend is seen during other festivals like Diwali, Baisakhi and the New Year’s Eve. Religious affiliation doesn’t come in the way — neither for the givers, nor for the seekers.
For most, it seems like an act of desperation. Gyarsi, a 70-year-old from New Delhi, came to Pune a couple of days after the month of Ramzan started. “My sister-in-law told me that she had made Rs 20,000 during this time last year,” she said. Her son, part of a wedding brass band, barely earned enough to keep their family of six afloat. Besides, Gyarsi is blind in one eye, which, her sisterin-law pointed out, would help her case. “But there are too many seekers this year. Hatte-katte log bhi hai (Some of them are physically able). I’m starting to regret coming here.”
Begging usually stems from severe poverty, unemployment and rising costs of living. While hearing a PIL to decriminalise begging, the Delhi High Court also held the inadequate state support responsible: “You or we will not beg even if we are offered a crore of rupees. It is out of sheer necessity that someone puts out a hand to beg for food. How is begging an offence in a country where you (government) are not able to provide for food or jobs?” Yet, little has been done by way of institutional redress over the years. Most often, beggars are rounded up and imprisoned.
Only days before Ramzan this year, the district magistrate of Srinagar directed immediate arrest of persons soliciting alms in public places. In Pune, a group of NGOs banded together to rally the community against giving alms to the beggars.
Their aim: to eliminate the “professionals” seeking to profit off religious philanthropy. Sayed Ahmed of Pune-based Raabta Foundation, who is leading this campaign, recalled how it all started with an encounter he had with a beggar outside a mosque in his neighbourhood last year.
“This man was claiming to have come from Aligarh to seek treatment for his sick mother. By the time the prayer had just ended and people dispersed, he had collected around Rs 9,000. I went up to him and asked: ‘What kind of sickness is this that a hospital in Aligarh can’t cure?’” The man had no answer. On probing some more, says Ahmed, he felt it was a con.
“These are the people who start off as desperate and then it becomes a habit,” says Ahmed. Giving in, he adds, not only encourages them, it also enables the criminal syndicates among them.
The involvement of criminal syndicates in begging is widely believed to be prevalent, but little evidence has been found to support this. In 2016, Delhi Police concluded after a two-month-long investigation at the direction of the Arvind Kejriwal government that there was no organised begging mafia in Delhi.
Ahmed’s campaign involves on-street picketing, mosque-to-mosque visits, promoting awareness via social media, and coordination with the police to “raid” begging hotspots. After it was launched last year, the campaign saw a total of 120 beggars arrested by the Kondhwa police in 2018. This year, 19 more were arrested in six raids conducted over the month of Ramzan.
“It has become a business,” says Anil Patil, senior inspector at Kondhwa police station. “A lot of people fake disabilities and make up to Rs 1-2 lakh a month.” Patil estimates that up to 80 new beggars had migrated to Kondhwa over Ramzan. But arresting them is only a deterrent, not a solution, he agrees. After all, each of the 19 arrested this year were released after posting a bail of Rs 5,000.
Asha Jogdand, a native of Jalna in Maharashtra, was among the 25-odd people arrested in one such raid outside Kausar Bagh mosque last year. She worked as a domestic help for several years in Pune before paralysis in her left hand forced her to take to the streets. After her detention at Yervada prison, she was taken to the courts but not given any legal counsel. “They had me wait outside the courtroom and then said the bail had been fixed at Rs 10,000,” she says. The bail norm is Rs 5,000, so it’s possible that an unscrupulous official fleeced her. A few weeks later, she was back at her usual spot.
“I come here by bus whenever I need to buy oil, atta or rice,” she says. In the recently concluded month of Ramzan, she made up to Rs 400 a day. “My husband is a drunk, my son only gives me Rs 1,200 a month. But I still have to look after them, no?” she asks.
Mohammed Tarique, coordinator of Koshish, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Field Action Project on Homelessness and Destitution, says only a small number of beggars are part of organised rackets. “Unfortunately, when we talk of organised begging, our focus is on the victim, not the person making him do it.” Often, their relationship is not as exploitative as shown in the movies. “I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who have said that I only have this one person [the tout] in my life.”
Over the years, Koshish has helped rehabilitate hundreds of beggars by giving them jobs. “If people have enough support, nobody wants to beg,” says Tarique. “Usually, a certain degree of degradation has taken place to make them do that. It just requires very sustained engagement to get them out of it.” At the ongoing anti-begging campaign in Pune, there have been few attempts at counselling or rehabilitation. Sayed Ahmed claims he intends to address this in the coming months by reaching out to more NGOs. But first, he said, the citizens need to be made aware.
In the last week of May, he invited me to one of his picketing events at the Kausar Bagh mosque in Kondhwa. As the sun blazed upon us, around a dozen volunteers from the local NGOs stood on the street flanking the mosque, placards in hand, warning onlookers about the evils of begging — and paying. Inspector Patil, who had also been invited to lend the police’s backing, recorded a video message expressing solidarity with the anti-begging drive. His constables then warned the beggars and shooed them off. A few mosque-goers came up to congratulate them.
“You are doing an absolutely right thing,” said one. “It’s become a habit for them. You sit and get easy money.” “I saw a man with a bag full of money,” said another. “Imagine, he earns in a day more that working people like us.” The police, activists, concerned citizens and onlookers tut-tutted together. Then they got on their bikes, cars, taxis and went away.
I found Safat Ali a few metres away from his usual spot near the gates afterwards. I asked him what he thought of the campaign. “I’m no beggar,” he reiterated, visibly agitated, “But I have a family to feed. What choice do I have?”
(The writer is a freelance journalist)