Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Giving alms to beggars - an act of charity? - think twice

One can’t miss the sight of physically challenged beggars sitting outside the Central Secretariat Metro Station as one comes out towards the Krishi Bhawan exit gate every morning between 9 till about 10.30 am. One also can’t miss the large number of office goers especially ladies, religiously putting coins, in the begging bowl and going away pleased! I often wonder what is the psychology of a person who gives alms? Is it a belief that he/she is trying to help someone needy who is incapable and can’t make his/her living otherwise? Or if I am rude, is it ‘playing god’ that he/she will earn extra brownies with this act of almsgiving? Is it a part of religious rites or practices? Have we thought of the consequences of giving alms and making someone dependent on such almsgivers? Is the money being used for his livelihood or is it frittered away? Or seeking alms is just one of the front façades of few organized groups who have flourishing businesses of drugs and flesh trade?

It is in this background that I would like to highlight some of the salient features of a very detailed socio-economic profiling of alms seekers, I had undertaken in Hyderabad, while I worked as District Collector, with the assistance of an NGO – Hyderabad Council for Human Welfare (HCHW) ( ) in 2005, some of the findings of which were startling. I was District Collector of Hyderabad, the State capital of Andhra Pradesh during 2004-06. It was during this period that I used to notice a particular aged lady begging at one of the prominent traffic islands every day.

Thinking that nobody would opt for begging as a profession in the first place and that they must have resorted to it as a last resort, I wanted to find a meaning socio-economic rehabilitation of those alms seekers who wish to come of this profession and live in somewhat more dignified manner. I wish to make it clear that I, at no point, had the idea of making Hyderabad ‘beggar free’. There weren’t any formal records/data on the number of beggars or regarding their socio-economic profiling in Hyderabad and was not surprised. The only data available was pertaining to 1994 when according to a survey conducted by the Social Welfare Department, there were a total of 4,428 beggars in the city of Hyderabad.

A study was entrusted to HCHW to take up a detailed socio-economic profiling of beggars in Hyderabad in 2005. The objective was

• To arrive at an exact number of beggars; to ascertain the magnitude of problem and the spatial mapping of beggars.

• To study the profile of beggars in terms of demographic and geographical details (including age and gender profile).

• To study the living and working conditions of beggars with emphasis on the kind of exploitations (including physical) and related health hazards.

• To understand the economics behind begging and to ascertain what percentage of begging is organized and how does it operate?

• To explore and evolve possibilities of rehabilitation by effectively involving them to find out mutually workable alternatives.

How was the survey carried out?

HCHW formed teams of its staff and volunteers who undertook the actual head count and detailed survey of each of the beggars in the city. The location of beggars is more or less pre-determined and it was not difficult to undertake this survey. It took about two months time and we are reasonably sure that about 90% of all beggars got covered in this survey. The number of beggars is a dynamic figure and keeps changing on a daily basis. However, the survey showed up the trends in beggary and the policy implications in the process.

Salient features of the survey – A total of 10,466 beggars existed at the time of conducting the survey. As seen, 65% are aged 36 years and above while 12.5% are less than 18 years of age. 22% of them are in the age group of 19-35 years. In terms of caste composition, 52% of all beggars belong to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and it becomes 82% if Backward Castes also are included. Of the total, about 56% are males and 44% are females. 78.6% of all beggars were Hindus while 15% were Muslims and 5% Christians. Almost 50% of all beggars were married, 22.5% unmarried (mainly children), 18.7% widower/widow, 4.7% deserted and about 4.8% divorcees.

Physical features

44% of the beggars are able bodied ie who are physically fit and otherwise are capable of doing physical work, 25 % are old aged (and not able to do physical work), 14% are physically challenged and 5% are mentally challenged while 10% are diseased/chronically ill. It implies that almost half of the beggars are physically fit and are capable of doing work. While 65.3% indulge in direct soliciting, 7.8% seek alms by singing, 6.1% by exhibiting the picture of gods and about 7% by exhibiting their wounds or physical disabilities.

Place of stay

while 59.2% have some sort of accommodation with them (thatched huts or some have pucca huts too), 40.8% are homeless. Of those who don’t have any kind of accommodation, 44% stay in religious places (mosques, temples and church complexes), 33% take shelter on footpaths, 8% stay in railway stations and 7% in Bus bays and about 4 % in the parks. If we look at the period for which they are in this profession, only 30% are into begging for less than 3 years (recent entrants), while 45.6% are in this profession for a period ranging from 4-15 years and about 25% are more than 15 years old into begging. It implies that once entered, a person remains as beggar and there hardly are any viable alternatives for them to switch over to another profession and this makes the task of identifying an alternative sustainable option very difficult.

Income earned

While 25.6% earn less than Rs 25 per day, 55.3% earn between Rs 26-50 per day and about 19% earn more than Rs 50 per day ($ 1.2 per day). In other words, 21% earn more than Rs 2500 per month (about 60$ per month or 2$ per day) while about 50% earn between Rs 900 to Rs 2500 per month (21$-60$ per month) and 30% earn less than Rs 900 per month. It implies a net average total income of about Rs 15 crores per month or Rs 180 crores per annum (3.5$ million per month or 42 $ million per annum!!).

It is rather surprising to note that only about 49% of the income is spent on the food and shelter (32% & 17% respectively) and that 51% of the income earned by beggars is spent on entertainment (cinema, visit to commercial sex workers) and habits (such as drugs, smoking and alcohol)! Now, will all of you, who believe that giving alms is an act of charity, realize that 51% of your charity is used for entertainment, unless of course you believe that the beggar has an equal right to enjoy life this way!

Children in Beggary

A total of 1302 children were found begging out of the total 10466 beggars in Hyderabad, almost 50% of whom are girls. While 6.6% children are less than 5 years old (they are mainly used to display in arms while begging by adults), a pre-dominant 55.5% are aged 6-12 years. These are children who seek alms on their own, seen alone while begging so as to maximize their earnings. 11% are aged 13-15 and 27% are aged 15-18 years.

In terms of earnings, 41% earn less than Rs 25 per day while 47% earn between Rs 26-50 per day and only 13% earn more than Rs 50 per day implying that the average income earned by children is less than that of an adult beggar.

80% of the children in begging have never been to school and among those who have been to schools at some level, 85% went upto primary level while only 5% could go to high school level. For those who went to schools, the gap in studies (discontinued from schooling) is less than an year for 26% of these children while the gap was 2-5 years for 61% of those who attended school at some point and was more than 61% for about 13% of such children.

When asked why these children chose to be in begging, 45% mentioned “freedom” (to do what they wish and freedom roam around without being confined to the house or studies) as the main reason. Another 32% mentioned “basic needs fulfillment” as the reason they chose this profession (access of easy money to meet their needs of hunger and habits) and 10% think that they can “participate in decision making” (by virtue of they being earning or may be the only earning member of the family).

Girl children in beggary - The most vulnerable lot

A total of 175 girl children are in beggary and 75% of them are migrants (from places in Andhra Pradesh other than Hyderabad and came to Hyderabad in search of livelihood). 63% (110 numbers) are unmarried and 28.6% (50 numbers) are married. The remaining 18% are divorcees/deserted or widows. Only 35% (61 numbers) stay in houses while the remaining 65% (114 numbers) have no shelter and have to take refuge in bus shelters, railway stations, religious places and footpaths and are the most vulnerable lot and often subject of exploitation of all kinds. It comes as no surprise thus that almost all them are abused.

When asked to describe the abuser, 44% are exploited by adult street elements, 14% by adolescents boys/youth, 18% by rickshaw/auto drivers and 7.4% by police!. 13% of these girls admitted being abused by almost all of these categories.

What’s worrisome is that 67% of these girls (117 numbers) are not aware of HIV/AIDS and have thus not used any protection while being exploited by these elements and these are sitting ducks for infecting HIV.

Rule position regarding Beggary

Begging is governed by the Andhra Pradesh Prevention of Begging Act 1977 which makes begging in public places an offence and lays down that "No person shall beg in a public place after commencement of this Act and it shall be an offence punishable under this Act, if any under Section 27 may arrest without warrant any person who is found begging in contravention of Section 3. On conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term whichshall not be less than six months but shall not be more than two years or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees or with both. For a second time, is convicted again he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but shall not be more than five years."

The Act defines beggary as –

– soliciting or receiving aims for one’s own subsistence or for the subsistence of his dependants includes allowing a child in his custody to solicit or receive aims.

– Soliciting or receiving aims, whether or not under any preference as singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing tricks or offering any article for sale;

Exposing or exhibiting the object, any sore, wound, injury, deformity or disease

– Having no ostensible means of subsistence & wandering about or in such condition or manner as makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms

– Allowing one self or a child or an animal to be used as an exhibit for the purpose of soliciting or receiving alms

– Entering on any private premises for the purposes of soliciting or receiving alms.

Similar Acts exist in other States too such as Delhi & Maharashtra. The Authorized officer under the Act is the Police Officer or any other such officer as authorized by the Government.

However, there are many issues with the Act. On the one side, the implementabiliy part of the Act is highly doubtful and has rarely been used. And on the other side, a more basic and important question is why is begging an offence? What is the logic of having such an outdated and draconian Act and the rationale behind it? Is it because, begging is not a pleasant sight? And if seeking alms is an offence, what about those who give alms to such beggars and are an equal if not bigger partners in crime? I also wonder why do certain cities, including Delhi, from time to time take up campaigns to make a city “beggar free” and it is not a coincidence that most of such occasions coincide with a major international event such as a visit of a very high ranking foreign delegation or an international even such as the recently held Commonwealth Games? And has the Government been able to come out with viable sustainable income generating alternatives for these beggars? What are the alternatives with the policy makers? My first point of argument is a bit theoretical and deals with the question of why an alternative? If it is just for the sake of ‘removing certain visual irritants from the sight of well to do individual’, I am against any such intervention. By a very conservative estimate, there are a total of about 10 million beggars in the country and I presume that most of them were driven into this profession as a last resort when they could not find any other means of livelihood and once entered, they continued due to the lack of any viable exit alternatives. While compromise to self-dignity (that’s what we think as an outsider) may be a force to reckon with so far as their desire to move to an alternative is concerned, the income they earn, the freedom associated with the profession and a feeling of ‘easy life’ are something which will be difficult to ensure in any alternative profession. And for such plans to rehabilitate them, we need to concentrate only on that segment among them who are willing to come out of it on their own. It is therefore important that we do not envisage a grand macro level intervention strategy trying to make a city ‘clean’ (‘beggar free’) and concentrate on the segment which feels it needs to come out of this profession. In the specific case of Hyderabad, we tried intervening in the case of girls beggars, especially those who were most vulnerable by bringing them to some of the rehabilitation centers run by NGOs and providing them alternative means of livelihood. Some of them had been abused for so long that their psyche was wounded greatly and it took these NGOs a while before they could bring the smile on them. Another danger is that because most of these beggars don’t have proper address nor proof of identity, they are left out of most of the Government run welfare schemes such as Public Distribution System (PDS) of foodgrains, old age pension schemes, widow pension schemes and so on. Paradoxically, this is the most vulnerable section, in need of such schemes. With the much hyped Unique Identification Cards Project (UID) depending upon ‘State Partners’ to provide the information of beneficiaries, there is every likelihood that most of these most deserving people and among most neglected will continue to be left out of any meaningful Government intervention strategy. They are the most voiceless, neglected and excluded lot and continue to be so.


  1. Its true. Begging has become a profession linked to mafia. As a journalist, I have done some reporting on organised begging in and around Vijayawada some time back. I don't encourage begging on the streets at any point. Those who are habituated to begging never like to work or accept the shelter that we offer them. I have tried this and failed. (Gopi, Journalist, Vijayawada)

  2. In my area, children will beg along with their mothers. In the evening, I saw their father coming on bike and taking the money with him. This has become a organized profession where some are made physically disabled to get mercy of the donors.

  3. You'll notice that there aren't any Sardars in your survey - maybe explainable in Hyderabad I'm sure but I've seen just one in Delhi in all these years and he was a drug addict who none of us could convince to take up a job.
    So community and upbringing have a say as well - and I think there's an important point to focus on.
    Also, there's a beggar in my locality whose been there a very long time and I know has put his son through college. (He's one of the few who has regulars and can guess our moods so he's an interesting study). It can be a fairly lucrative profession as well - and you can make as much, if not more than as a factory worker etc.