CWG 2010: Is the Delhi government listening?

Posted on May 28, 2010 in Society

Amiya Sinha:

The capital city, Delhi, is getting a complete makeover in time for the Commonwealth Games this October. Work is going on at a feverish pace to give it what is, perhaps, best described as the ‘Singapore look’, albeit in our well-known jugaad style (read papering over shortcomings rather than looking for permanent answers).

What this means is that potholes are getting covered, trees planted, cobble-stones laid and dry patches turned ‘verdant’ green almost overnight. What this means is that ornamental potted plants (six million of them according to news reports) are in. But strays, beggars, roadside hawkers and all other unseemly sights are out.

The Delhi government does not want them defacing its pristine streets. Predictably, animal lovers and human rights activists are up in arms against the government’s move. Equally predictably, the former are better organized and have been holding protests and rallies in the city. Many celebrities have also lent their support.

They have a point. Strays and beggars cannot be wished away overnight. Except that no city that wishes to lay claim of being the capital of an emerging economic superpower and wants to host what are the biggest and most extravagant Commonwealth Games till date can afford to have beggars and strays on its streets!

But when you have about 60,000 beggars (though NGOs claim the numbers are likely to be closer to one lakh) and more than 300,000 odd stray animals, give or take a few thousand, there are no simple answers. Delhi’s social welfare minister has announced the setting up of a dozen mobile courts for trying beggars. Anyone caught begging is sent to one of 12 shelters in the capital. The problem is these are woefully over-crowded and poorly maintained.

In an affidavit filed before a division bench of the Delhi High Court in March this year, the Delhi government stated it has written letters to 10 states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, to take back beggars hailing from these states. Rough estimates suggest the maximum number are from Uttar Pradesh (27%) followed by Bihar (17%), West Bengal (6%) and Haryana (5%).

It is doubtful that state governments will be willing to cooperate in ‘cleaning’ up Delhi streets. Even if they do, the beggars are likely to come back; the reason why the poor from all over the country flock to Delhi is that begging in the capital city is more profitable as compared to other cities.

As far as strays are concerned, the government has no clue about their precise number. The first census of stray dogs done by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) estimates over 260,000 stray dogs in the capital of which only roughly 50% have reportedly been vaccinated against rabies. Rabies is a constant danger.

The Association for Prevention and Control of Rabies in India estimates the frequency of rabies deaths in India at one per 30 minutes and the frequency of bites, one every two seconds. The overwhelming majority is due to stray dog bites and the victims are usually the faceless poor. Once infected, not only is there no cure but death is excruciatingly painful.

Animal lovers say street dogs can be vaccinated but what is the guarantee that the dog in question has been immunized? None! And unlike with pets, it is impossible to track a stray. Apart from dogs there are monkeys, cattle, not to mention the odd goats and pigs, all jostling for space on city streets. So what is the way out?

In response to the petition against the government’s move on beggars, protesting against the unconstitutionality of the present act that defines begging as a crime, the division bench of the Delhi High Court remarked (quite rightly), “You are seeing only one side of the picture.”

So too with strays! Animal lovers find it hard to accept but the reality is that strays cannot be allowed a free run of city streets and residential colonies.

Just as the solution to the problem of beggars is not to make begging a crime but to provide alternative shelters for the truly destitute in the short run, and more employment opportunities long term so they do not have to resort to begging, the solution to the problem of strays is to provide shelters where they can be cared for properly, not to allow them a free run of our streets.

A fraction of the money being spent to beautify the city would suffice and give us a permanent solution to the problem of both beggars and strays. Is the Delhi government listening?

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz pursuing Economics (1st Yr.) from Ramjas College, University of Delhi. Football is his religion.  Writing has always been one of his areas of interest.