NEW DELHI, INDIA // It is eight in the morning at a sleepy taxi-rank in South Delhi. The taxi driver is belligerent and claims his meter is out of service before asking for a fare three times the legal price. At the first set of traffic lights, a girl dressed in a mottled sari hoists a baby on her hip and juts an open hand through the window. "Hello sir, 10 rupees for my baby please," she asks in well-rehearsed English.
For the average Delhiite, this normal routine may soon be a thing of the past. Aiming to protect the sensibilities of the thousands of expected sport fans coming for next year's Commonwealth Games, the government is cracking down on begging and a range of other bad habits that India's capital city has become synonymous for. Addressing a function this week, the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, appealed to the city's 12 million residents to be more caring and law-abiding as well as announcing a major clean-up operation.
The minister pointed to the use of such schemes in Germany before the football World Cup and in Beijing ahead of last year's Summer Olympics. "We must behave as citizens of a big, good international city," Mr Chidambaram said. "We want to encourage people to change their mindset." A chief concern for authorities is curbing the rampant charity-seeking around the city's religious and tourist hot spots. There are estimated to be close to 60,000 beggars in New Delhi. On September 1, the social welfare minister announced a plan to eradicate begging ahead of the Games, and to this end launched a mobile courtroom-on-wheels for immediate sentencing.
Beggars, however, seem undeterred and instead are honing their language skills. Informal classes are taking place in overcrowded slums throughout the capital to teach the basics of English, French, Spanish and others (despite English being the obvious language of the Commonwealth). "We have learnt some English from other beggars when we first arrived here," said Kali, a Rajasthani girl who did not know her age, but looked to be in her early twenties.
Kali and other girls from her village sell flowers and beg at a set of traffic lights five minutes' walk from Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the primary venue for the Commonwealth Games. They make roughly 500 rupees per week from their trade, a fraction better than what they would make farming in their village. Previously, Kali had been staying in a slum close to South Delhi's upper-class Defence Colony, but it was recently destroyed by police and government workers to make way for a construction project.
"Many have been beaten and our slum has been torn down," she said. The story is similar down the road, where 45 year-old Popat, a native of Gujarat, begs outside the shrine of a Hindu saint. "The government is now trying to clean up all us beggars from here and even those that sleep on the road at night," the father of five said. "I have heard they will take us away and lock us up, but I don't know where."
While the government initiative to remove beggars is just getting started, authorities are confident of success. Backed by the government and Delhi's police force, the capital's authorities have claimed that beggars who do not return to their home states will be placed under immediate arrest and taken to prison. "We have started these mobile courts [where] they will be sentenced and sent away to particular spots which we have identified," said Dr Kanwar Sain, the mayor of Delhi.
"There will be no future of begging in Delhi." The mobile courts, with two currently patrolling and two more on the way, are equipped with a judge, an official and a policeman. Local law enforcement, as well as security at Delhi's religious spots, have been urged to report beggars to a control room, which then dispatches the courtroom-on-wheels. The government has also announced a plan to compile a biometric database of the city's beggars to identify and track repeat offenders.
Another item on the mayor's agenda is the overall behaviour of Delhiites. While vibrant and undeniably alluring, Delhi has not grown without gaining an infamous, and not undeserved, reputation both domestically and internationally. Indians and foreigners alike scold the city's noisiness, pollution and abrasiveness. Criticisms continue with the excessive touting, undisciplined crowd ethics and the overcrowded, and occasionally fatal, public transport system.
On the mayor's hit list to tackle are jaywalkers, paan-spitters, autorickshaw drivers who do not use their meters and men who urinate in public. "We are making all efforts to make Delhi a world-class city," Mr Sain said. But some wonder how much can be done in a year. Dipankar Gupta, a New Delhi-based author and retired professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the policies were just a finger in the dam.
"There is a life after the Commonwealth Games, we don't simply die after it. I'm afraid [the government] has not thought long-term. "The current thinking is 'lets Band-Aid the problems and not think about them too much until after it's over'." * The National