“Naked feet, walking on the street.
Tiny palms, begging for a treat.
Only if we could look deep into their eyes,
We will know where the reality lies!”
Childhood is the formative phase in every person's life. Having a beautiful childhood is indeed the most cherished gift of all. Unfortunately, not every child is blessed with such a fate.
In today's hectic pace of life, we come across many people. A popular sight on most Indian streets comprises innocent children with tangled hair, teary eyes, skinny bodies, and outstretched hands constantly knocking at our windows, peeping inside cars begging for either money or food. It is more common at traffic signals, temples, and outside places of worship. Many people shoo them away, while some prefer giving them money.
However, have we ever thought about the lifestyle of such children? What could be their dreams? Do they beg willingly, or are they forced into this job? There are numerous questions, which are perhaps difficult to answer.
Childhood Lost on the Streets
Begging is a range of activities whereby an individual asks a stranger for money on being poor or needing charitable donations for basic survival, health, or religious reasons (International Labour Organization, 2004). Child Begging is using a minor to solicit or receive alms (Section 363 A (4)(a) & (b), IPC, 1860). It is one such activity that can be manipulated and converted into a business by tremendous forces, weaponising the innocence of these children.
According to the National Human Rights Commission report, 44,000 children are abducted, on average, every year in India. One child goes missing every eight minutes. Over 11,000 of these missing children remain untraced. However, the actual figure is believed to be much higher, as many cases go unreported.
Studies conducted by Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations have also revealed that many children go missing from running away from home. Either because they are fed up with the domestic conditions of their family or to escape abuse. They are often sent/sold off by their own families who hope to gain some work that will bring money home.
These missing children end up in different situations. Some are killed, while others primarily engage in forced labour in hazardous factories and illegal establishments. Countless children become victims of unlawful adoptions and unlawful organ transplants. These innocent children are also exploited sexually and forced into prostitution, sex slavery, pornography, and forced marriages.
As far as begging is concerned, according to the Census 2011 report, more than 3 lakh children across India from the age group of 0-14 years are forced to beg, using everything from an addiction to drugs to threats of violence and actual beatings.
According to the report released by the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner, West Bengal tops the chart with 75,083 Child Beggars, followed by states like Uttar Pradesh with 57,038, and Madhya Pradesh with 25,603 Child Beggars. Child Begging is also widespread in states like Maharashtra (22,737), Rajasthan (22,548), Gujarat (12,584), Jharkhand (9,817), Chhattisgarh (9,355), Haryana (7, 971,), Delhi (2,073), and Goa (229). The primary targets are homeless children, children living in slums, and children from migrant families.
Begging in India is a multi-million-dollar business evolving into an industry run by Mafias and Cartels. In comparison to adult beggars, child beggars are more likely to receive donations or charity from people; this is why children are dragged into the business.
A Structured Nexus: Patterns in Child Begging
According to the research conducted by Anti-Slavery International, the most significant reasons recorded for child begging around the globe are drug addiction, parental coercion, organised crime, and preaching by religious leaders. Other causes include social disorders like anomie, cultural conflicts, industrialisation, community disorganisation, poverty, and the breakdown of a family during natural calamities, which compel children to beg for survival.
Research has stated that child begging occurs in several forms and patterns.
Children forced to beg by parents- Various techniques, right from threats of violence to psychological coercion, are employed against the child. Recently Mumbai Police brought to light that many parents from Mumbai had dragged their children in begging and were themselves living a comfortable life. They were using all the facilities provided by the government under the Right to Education Act, 2009 but were not sending their children to school.
Children forced to beg by third parties- Various third parties like informal networks, organised gangs, mafia, religious leaders force children to beg. It is reported that children are sent to religious boarding schools where they are taught how to beg.
A Pre-planned, Well-acted Show!
One must have observed, women begging on the streets or at the signals are always seen carrying a baby in their arms. However, have we ever wondered why these babies are always sleeping? It is one such instance that raises doubt on the whole scenario. To unveil the reality, these babies are not sleeping but are drugged to such a length that makes them unconscious until the next working hours of the women beggars. The whole plan is plotted to exploit people's emotions and take money out of their pockets. "The babies were rescued when we brought them to the rescue homes. We were shocked when we found them sleeping even after three days!" says Anitha Kanaiya, Associate Executive Director of OASIS, an NGO working against Human Trafficking that rescued 106 children from Bangalore.
It is shocking to know that babies are even rented from labour class mothers to make them look more sympathetic to the givers.
A Vicious Cycle of Abuse and Torture: Consequences of Begging
Children are often injured, to be precisely maimed and handicapped to look more pitiful and solicit empathy for higher earnings. Mafia gangs are deliberately crippling a large number of children to fill their pockets. Children have to undergo severe physical, emotional, and mental distress and have long working hours with no control over their income.
A research paper on Child Beggary recorded that these children are given a daily target. If not achieved, they are not given food, forced to beg for extra hours, and are punished severely by the perpetrators. Moreover, they have to surrender their income to their exploiters. The study also revealed the use of drugs and toxins to bully children. Three out of every four children reported sexual exploitation, and many said they were forced to consume alcohol or hallucinogens. The majority of the girls complained that they were raped every day, and they did not know how to overcome their trauma, fear, and insecurity. Children are subjected to a lifelong addiction to drugs to keep them in the mechanism. Many children die on account of an overdose of drugs.
A study by UNICEF states that children are always found in unsafe working and living conditions. These children receive little or no education, as they have to dedicate maximum hours of their day on the streets. With no education, their hopes of escaping or getting into mainstream professions using their skills and abilities are also shattered, making them susceptible to continuous exploitation.
These children also lose out on nutrition and health. They do not have proper shelter, adequate food, clean drinking water, or access to healthcare. They are abused physically, verbally, and sexually by their perpetrators. There are high chances of them contracting HIV, AIDS, Diarrhea, and other dreadful infections. Those who are forcefully disabled are left with no other option than to beg.
Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
A Wold Vision Study has reported that nearly eight million children all over the globe have been compelled into forced begging and child labour as an outcome of the current situation. The report further claims that 85 million families in and across Asia have insufficient food stocks and income, making children more prone to begging.
In India, the situation has worsened. A Bengal Daily stated that COVID-19 had increased the number of young children aged 6-12 years in the begging market of India. The figures relating to child begging have expanded due to the closure of schools, unemployment of parents, immigration from rural areas, and poverty. Many families are now surviving on the income brought home by their children by begging.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau, COVID-19 has made children vulnerable to trafficking. About 2,200 cases were recorded in 2019, of which 95% accounted for internal trafficking. As per the official data, 2,914 children were trafficked.
During the lockdown, there was hardly anyone on the streets to beg from. Children were found starving on the streets, queuing up for food near shelter homes and at the mercy of the authorities. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has urged the NGOs to stop feeding street children and has asked them to take these children to shelter homes for further care and protection. Additionally, these children are at high risk of contracting the virus. They do not have any access to masks or sanitisers either because they cannot afford it or seem uneducated on the severity of the present situation.
Constitutional Safeguards available for Children in India
Child Begging projects a severe problem before the entire world. It highlights the blunt future of a nation hampering its social as well as economic growth. The Constitution of India safeguards children through the various Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policies.
The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children from six to fourteen years (Article 21A).
Trafficking of humans for begging and other similar forms of forced labour is prohibited and shall be considered an offence punishable per law (Article 23).
No child below fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment (Article 24).
The State should direct its policy towards securing children's health and ensure that children are not abused and forced by the economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age and strength (Article 39 (e)).
Children should be given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and conditions of freedom and dignity. Their childhood and youth must be protected against moral and material abandonment (Article 39 (f)).
The State shall endeavour to provide, within ten years from the day the Constitution was adopted for free and compulsory education to children up to fourteen years (Article 45). Unfortunately, this goal is still a million steps away.
Legislative and Judicial Effort
The Indian legislature has taken several steps to curb the menace of child begging. Various provisions prohibit Child Begging:
The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 criminalises begging and aims to remove beggars from their current illegal profession so they may be detained, trained, and eventually employed elsewhere. Under this act, a child is defined as a boy under sixteen and a girl under eighteen (Section 2 (iv)).
As per Section 5 (9) of this Act, when the beggar is a child under five, the Court shall send them to a Children's Court and be dealt with as per the Children's Act, 1960.
Also, Section 11 states that if any person having the custody, charge, or care of a child allows or encourages the child to solicit or receive alms or uses another person as an exhibit, they shall be punished for a period of imprisonment of one year, which can extend to three years.
In 1959, there was an amendment in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, to criminalise the exploitation of children for begging. Section 363 A was added to prohibit kidnapping by a person who is not a lawful guardian of a minor to beg. The punishment for the same is ten years of imprisonment and a fine. Whoever maims any minor for begging shall be punished with life imprisonment and a fine.
Section 76 of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 makes the employment of a juvenile or a child begging punishable with imprisonment up to five years and a fine of Rupees Ten Thousand.
In 2020, the Karnataka High Court held that forcing children to beg/sell things violates Article 21 A of the Indian Constitution. The Court has ordered the State to develop a scheme to identify destitute children and admit them in school even in the middle of an academic year.
In May 2021, the Delhi High Court issued a notice to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), the Delhi Government, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and others on the PIL seeking direction to enact appropriate law and policies to stop begging and selling of products at traffic signals and junctions by children.
Awful Tales that will Melt Hearts
A land of opportunities and developments, India has miserably failed in providing safeguards to its children. There is a long list of millions of unfortunate children surviving in this dirty business called 'begging'. Here are a few terrible tales:
"My father sexually abused me, so I left home. I beg at the Purana Hanuman Mandir every day from morning to evening. I eat whatever is offered to me by the temple devotees. I earn Rupees 10-20 per day, which I have to give to my friend who supplies me with drugs. If I do not give him money every day, he will beat me!" says Javid (named changed), a 14-year-old child beggar from Delhi.
"I cried very hard. My leg is removed here!" says Amir pointing to his stump and grimacing. His limb has was mid-calf, leaving him without feet. A couple drugged him at the Mumbai railway station and pushed him into this nightmare.
"I went to wash my son's nappy. When I returned, my son was not there!" says Mohini, who was tricked by a woman posing as a social worker under the pretext of examining her son. She is believed to be a part of a gang that steals babies for the beggar mafia.
"They beat me every day and do not give me food. I want to go to school. I have three brothers and all of them go to school. I don't know why my parents sent me here to beg!" says Nayana (named changed), who was rented out to the mafia as her family was in outstanding debt.
Scandals in India
In the recent past, many scams and scandals have been exposed in the country.
In 2019, the women police of Ahmedabad busted a begging racket and rescued 16 children and a 20-years-old woman. The youngest of the children rescued was only eight months old and was carried by other beggars to draw people's attention.
In 2019, the Mumbai Crime Branch busted a baby-selling racket wherein four women were arrested. They would monitor babies being born in the slums of Mumbai to parents facing financial constraints and then take undue advantage of the same.
"The gangmasters hold you down and cut your tongue if they come to know that you have informed someone. They are not humans!" says Flintoff (18-years-old), a reformed local Indian Gangster and former child beggar.
So, where does the problem lie?
It is very natural for a person to believe that children beg for their family's economic constraints. The person will feel pity for the child and provide them with food or money. The tricks used by the mafias remain primarily unsuspected. Lack of public awareness injects more and more children into this job every day. Child Beggary has turned into a lucrative business with a revenue of around 1.8 Crore (Census 2001).
In India, there is insufficient availability of official data. Very little reliable data is available on trafficking and related aspects. The last data collected and compiled by the government was in 2016. Since then, four union budgets have been discussed in Parliament. However, this issue remains at the bottom of the list. Because of this, rescue and rehabilitation programs are very limited in India.
The Child Protection Service (CPS) by the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been in operation for many years. It aims to provide a safe and secure environment for rescued children. However, due to inadequate funding for the scheme, the whole idea of rehabilitation is never appropriately implemented. When children are forced into this business by their parents, there are high chances of getting re-victimised due to a lack of monitoring by the authorities.
India also lacks in providing psychological counselling and care to the rescued children, making it difficult to come out of the trauma. They tend to lie about their situation, pushing them again into the pit of beggary.
Many Government schools have also failed to serve their purpose. It has been reported that many children do not go to school. They were either beaten and abused by their teachers for not understanding what was being taught or because they were not given mid-day meals.
A Way Forward: Can We Stop all this?
Begging, especially child begging, has emerged as a dangerous menace in our country today. Eradicating the same is next to a challenge. Here are a few things to be kept in mind while dealing with this problem.
The government has to enforce a ban on begging. However, a complete ban at the first instance would not serve the purpose as there are high chances that things will continue behind the curtains. Gradual steps have to be taken to tackle this menace.
The relevant legislation is required to protect children legally. Laws on child sex trafficking, drug trafficking, child sexual abuse, and all the related areas should be scrutinised. Serious actions have to be taken against parents and those involved in this crime. Begging Gangs and Mafias have to be eliminated.
Proper rehabilitation facilities have to be provided to the rescued children.
Authorised Beggar homes/ Orphanages/ Shelter Homes must be established where these rescued children can be kept sound and safe.
Education and other training facilities can be provided to them.
If these children are reintegrated with their families, a timely check must also be conducted as many children might be re-victimised.
A strong awareness is a pressing need amongst parents on child rights and the problems connected with begging.
The government can develop welfare policies, financial schemes, and job opportunities for migrant and slum families to bring sufficient income to the family so that they should prevent sending their children away.
Discouraging the public from giving money to children. Receiving money encourages children to leave home and beg.
Giving food and clothing also does not work out many times because the same is sold or exchanged for illegal drugs and money.
Donations can be made to responsible NGOs who work for such children.
Education should be made compulsory and severe action must be taken against parents who refrain from sending their children to school.
A complete ban on corporal punishment in schools has to be implemented.
COVID-19 has taken a toll on every individual's life. However, no child deserves to move on the streets or door to door searching for food or money. Hence we as responsible citizens need to be alert enough to identify, rescue and rehabilitate children who are found begging or immediately call on the toll-free helpline number, 1098, to curb the proliferation of child begging.
In the words of Justice Subba Rao, "Social Justice must begin with children. Unless a tender plant is properly tended and nourished, it has little chance of growing into a strong and useful tree. So, the priority in the scale of social justice shall be given to the welfare of the children!"
Child begging and Child Labour are two sides of the same coin. Both are capable of destroying the country's future. It is high time we raise our voices against the two evil practices prevailing in our country for ages.
Let us not allow those tiny hands to work or beg!
Let those tiny hands hold a pen and a book and write the future of our nation!