Pallavi and her four children roam on the roads of Lal Chowk all day, begging. Pallavi is in her mid 20s and has a one-year-old baby clasped in her arms, naked and crying forfood. Her children run after cars, clean the windshield painstakingly and with pathetic expression ask for money. “We earn 300 rupees a day,” Pallavi says. “This money isn’t ours. It goes to our “leader”, who gives us shelter and food.”Pallavi is from Rajasthan. Her husband, adrug addict, left her a few months ago.
On a busy intersection in Pantha Chowk, two young brothers in rags run after cars,knocking on the windows, making a pitiable impression to seek alms. They have run away from an orphanage in Delhi. They came to Kashmir this year with other children, all sent by an organised mafia that profits from beggars.“Our father and mother died in an accident and we were homeless. Then an NGO took us to an orphanage in Delhi where we spent six months. We did not like to be caged. We ran away from there.But we did not know what to do. Then a beggar took us to a man who said he will give us a job, shelter and food,” said Rohit. Rohit and his brother Ram are about 12 years old. Both have never goneto school. “We earn 150 rupees in a day and it is taken by our master,” they said.
At an intersection on MA Road, a young girl said to a passerby: “Deedi, dus rupaye de do (sister, give me ten rupees).” Around this girl were a group ofchildren, some just five or six years old. All of them were wearing ragged clothes and had dusty feet and sweet faces. They lived in the large beggars’ camp in Lal Chowk.
In Srinagar, a huge population of beggarslives in makeshift tents in Nowgam, Bemina, Lal Chowk, Batmaloo and other areas. These small tarpaulin tents are crowded and three to four families live together. Most of them are ill due to unhealthy and unhygienic conditions. All of them are treated like animals by their “leaders” or “masters”.In the evening at Nowgam slum, beggarssurrender their earnings to the leader. Most of them sleep without eating food, as their bodies are tired and the only thing they want is to rest. They are provided two meals a day which includestwo chapattis, raw onion and chutney. The leader, whose name is Anand Srivastava, refused to talk at first. I took out three-hundred rupees from my pocket and gave it to him. He took it quickly and said that he may land in trouble if he opens his mouth. I gave himsome assurance and he began to unravelhow his business operates.“Our leader is a wealthy Muslim from Old Delhi. He lives in Balli Maran and his name is Assad Siddiqui Khan, commonly known as Babu Khan. All the money goesinto his pocket. After Delhi Police cracked down on beggars before the Asian Games, he went out of business. Then he started to look for other cities. Kashmir was an ideal choice. We are running two camps here, one in Nowgam and another in Bemina. Each camp has three leaders. The leaders train and instruct the beggars on where to beg, how to beg. At the end of the day, we collect money from them. Each month we receive 10 families who are willing to beg in return for shelter and food. Though some token money is given to them, most of the money they earn is taken by us, for we have to give it to our boss and also take some commission,” Srivastava said.When asked if he was not afraid of the police here, he said that it was one of theluxuries of Srinagar. “The police least bothers us here. Sometimes NGOs comeand talk to the children, ask them why they are begging. Most of the children donot talk.
Kashmir is truly heaven for us.”At another camp in Batmaloo, the leader refused to talk and said that he was not forcing anyone to beg.At the Lal Chowk slum, the leader was abusing four orphans aged 14 who had earned just 70 rupees in the day. Later he beats them and said that he won’t give them food tonight. They wept silently and went inside the tent. As I talked to the leader who calls himself Khali, after the famous wrestler, he started to pretend that he was a kind man. He said that he gave the children shelter and food, to cover the cost of which they had to earn more than a hundred rupees in a day. When I asked him if he had forced them into begging, he said, “They were poor and orphans. I took them and showed them how to beg and earn money. If they wanted to leave, they could.”
Next day I went to talk to these orphans while they were begging on the intersection at MA Road. They said, “Khali beats us every day and takes all our money. He gives us little food and if we hide the money, he finds it and sends us with other nasty beggars so that we don’t do it again.”Why do these kids not run away the first chance they get? For a multitude of reasons: 1. If found, they would be beaten, tortured, or killed. 2. Often, to keep the children dependent, leaders get them addicted to drugs like smack. 3. Even if they run away and find shelter in an orphanage or some institution, the suffocating conditions there bring them back on the streets.There are an estimated 3,00,000 child beggars in India according to the UNICEF. Experts say that there might be more than 50,000 non-local beggars in Kashmir.Recently an NGO, Childline India Foundation, started a drive in Srinagar city to remove child beggars from the streets. The children were sent to slums and provided with benefits of various government schemes meant for their rehabilitation. Muzamil Wagay, coordinator of Childline India’s Srinagar office, said that begging was difficult to control because it was organised and children from other stateswere constantly being trafficked into Kashmir. “The mafia here is running a huge business. According to our survey, it is poverty that is pushing children and families to work for the mafia. We are launching a drive in the coming weeks tosave children who have been forced into begging.”
Mufti Imran, a researcher with the non-government organisation Save the Children, says beggars are first trained before they are released on the streets. “They are taught different ways and nuances of begging, such as the most appropriate place to beg, the kind of people one should approach, the kind of dialogues and mannerisms that would make everyone sympathise. The more a person is tortured or tormented, the moreunfortunate he looks — this invokes more sympathy among the people who will give the alms, and religious places are perfect to exploit this sentiment,” Imran says.Exploiting sentiments would have been fine if the children got to keep what they earned. The handing over of the money to exploitative leaders is what makes the condition deplorable.
Officials say they are quite helpless because of legal and cultural issues that look at begging as a social rather than a criminal problem. Unless the authorities work out ways to strike at the roots of theorganised trade, the mafia will only be further emboldened to strengthen their tentacles, venture into newer areas and coerce more hapless people into their net.
Source: Kashmir Today