Pandit Tulsidas, 52, was resting under a tree next to a road junction in Jaipur, Rajasthan, where he had been begging for years.
When approached by an official about a government plan that would teach him job skills, he declined the offer. When the man said they would take care of his meals and that he would have a room to share with just one person, he again refused.
“But when he told me that he had a guaranteed job, I accepted,” he says, fearing that otherwise: “After the training, I would end up on the street again, because how can I eat without an income?”
Six months later, Tulsidas works a snack stand outside a Jaipur hospital, a job that pays him 11,000 rupees (£ 110) a month. So great is his sense of responsibility towards his clients that the interpreter has to wait a good two hours before Tulsidas has a free moment to chat.
Usually getting people off the streets is done by putting them in a police van and driving them to a dirty and crowded shelter. Keeping them off the streets is a problem that India has so far failed to solve.
Government efforts are sporadic. When a VIP visit expires, beggars are usually removed briefly before respawning shortly thereafter. Rarely has any scheme addressed the poverty and unemployment that drives people to the streets, but that may be starting to change.
The Rajasthan Skills and Livelihood Development Corporation (RSLDC) has developed a four-month plan for 100 men interested in developing their skills and who have families to support.
After an evaluation, it is established that some can cook, some know a little accounting, others can bake, etc. Then, for four months, the trainers work to develop these skills. Employers are enlisted to provide jobs and can visit the training center.
The men receive shelter and food and receive 230 rupees (£ 2.30) a day, slightly more than India minimum wage. This small sum goes a long way to building self-esteem in people who have only known insecurity.
For fifteen days before training, the men receive practical and emotional support as they orient themselves. “We give them counseling, yoga, soccer, meditation, nutritious meals, clean beds, and good sleep. On the first day, they bathe, trim their beards and unkempt hair, and clean their clothes, ”says Niraj K Pawan, Director of RSLDC.
Without counseling, many of the men would drop out of school, Pawan says. “They need someone who cares about them, who talks to them about what brought them to the streets and if they really want to work and support themselves. I call it a ‘brainwashing’ that helps you see clearly. “
Rakesh Jain, RSLDC deputy general manager, believes this is a crucial aspect of rehabilitation. “In one group, we took our eye off the ball and neglected counseling, and several beggars dropped out. Counseling is as important as training, ”says Jain.
It is this holistic aspect that explains its initial success, says Neelam Sharma, a social worker who spent years trying to teach beggars basic numeracy and literacy in the parks of Delhi through her charity Deep Jyoti.
“I realized that I was wasting my time. They cannot concentrate if they are hungry and worry about their next meal. You have to take care of all your basic needs (food, clothing and shelter) before starting any project and no government plan has taken a holistic approach. They are taken to a shelter, but then what? With no income, they are back on the streets, ”he says.
The first question asked of Pawan is: “How will we eat if they take us off the streets?”
Of the first 100 men, 60 are now working in cafes, bakeries or other trades, earning wages to enter bank accounts that the RSLDC opened for them. The remaining 40 are still in formation.
A 2021 study conducted by the Delhi-based organization. Institute of Human Development found that 80% of the 20,000 people who begged in the capital wanted to work.
According to the survey, beggars earn less than Rs 200 a day on average, and many get odd jobs whenever they can to supplement this.
This is what Surendra, 50, used to do. Sometimes he managed to send a little money back to his village, but most of the time, this was impossible. Now, after his training, he works for Akshay Patra, which provides food packages and meals in schools across India.
“I feel more in control of my life now, more secure. Before, I never knew how each day was going to turn out. Since my work helps feed the hungry, I try to do it well; I know what hunger is, ”he says.
For Surendra, in addition to the promise of a job, what really impressed him was what happened when he mentioned an accident he had had.
“My right shoulder had been bothering me ever since. The people at RSLDC got a doctor to treat my old injury. That made me think that they were really interested, not only in cleaning the streets, but in my well-being, ”says Surendra.
Rajasthan plans to replicate the scheme across the state. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is working on the launch of pilot projects in 10 cities. But it is not yet known whether these will guarantee jobs.
Harsh Mander, a social activist and former civil servant, is often cynical about the government’s plans to “tell the poor how they should live their lives.”
He distrusts those in power who impose their own notions of dignity on the poor, arguing that for some people the little money they make from begging is preferable to working in a factory for 12 hours and earning just enough to survive. .
“That said, in principle, the scheme sounds good. But we have to be careful that these schemes do not become a factory to produce cheap and unprotected labor, “says Mander.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism