Tuesday, February 24, 2009

India: India moves against child beggars

Since the release of the hit film Slumdog Millionaire, which portrayed children in the slums of Mumbai, there has been increasing international scrutiny of child begging in India. Now, New Delhi's Department of Social Welfare has launched a city-wide campaign to reduce the number of child beggars. Government officials are urging anyone in the capital who sees a child begging to call a telephone hotline, rather than give them money.

A child beggar pleads, "10 please." It's a common request at most busy intersections in India's capital, New Delhi.

As soon as the light turns red, children weave between cars, begging for money. Many have fled abusive homes in far away villages, while others have been brought to the city by their parents.

They quickly learn the tricks of the trade. Some knock on windows and peak inside. Many seek sympathy by pointing to babies in their arms.

Children make up most of the estimated 58,000 beggars in New Delhi, according to studies. This girl has been begging and selling magazines since she was her little brother's age.

"We don't have any place to live, the police drive us away and take all our stuff … They want to make Delhi into America," the child said.

Even though begging is a crime, the police response is inconsistent. One young child was begging while police looked on and did nothing about it.

Motorists who hold up traffic by giving beggars money run the risk of a traffic fine.

But, now, they are being urged to report child beggars with a quick phone call to 1-0-9-8.

Childline Coordinator Varun Pathak and Kanika Tripathy handle the calls at one of five Childline centers in Delhi.

The NGO's 24-hour service was launched more than a decade ago as a hotline for children who are lonely or in danger. Childline also fields calls like this one - a citizen reporting a tea shop using under-aged labor.

In the first half of February, only two child-begging cases were reported. Pathak logs the calls in his book and that is about it.

Childline's chief executive, Kajol Menon, says the organization learned from newspaper ads that it was tapped as the solution to child begging.

She says government officials have offered no instructions on how to respond to calls from motorists.

"What are we expected to do? Just call the number and somebody is there and the problem disappears? It doesn't disappear," she said. "It is parked somewhere else."

Pradeep Naryanan is head researcher at the Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices, a research institute. He says the scheme will fail if callers continue to see the same kids begging every day. "Even 1-0-9-8 will not be helpful because you need to know who is the duty bearer for the rights of this children," he said.

When a potential "duty-bearer" drives by, children run.

"The police trouble us. They say don't stand here or go stand somewhere far," the child beggar said. "When [Congress Party president] Sonia Gandhi passes the road, we go and stand far away. People say go away, then we go away."

Child beggars in Delhi, Slumdog Millionaire aside, are just as likely to be independent as to be run by ruthless mafia lords.

Many of them seem to beg daily until they earn enough for their next meal. Like kids everywhere, they want to spend much of their waking hours at play.

Published with the permission of Voice of America
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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