Pandit Tulsidas, 52, was resting under a tree by a road junction in Jaipur, Rajasthan, where he had begged for years.
When an official approached him about a government scheme that would teach him job skills, he rejected the offer. When the man said his meals would be looked after and he would have a room to share with only one other person, he refused again.
“But when he told me I was guaranteed a job, I accepted,” he says, fearing that otherwise: “After the training, I’d end up back on the streets, because how can I eat without an income?”
Six months on and Tulsidas works at 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 to his customers that the interpreter has to wait a good two hours before Tulsidas has a free moment to chat.
Getting people off the streets is usually done by bundling them into a police van and hauling them away to a crowded, dirty shelter. Keeping them off the streets is a problem India has so far failed to crack.
Government efforts are sporadic. When a VIP visit is due, beggars are generally briefly removed before reappearing soon afterwards. Rarely has any scheme addressed the poverty and unemployment that puts people on the streets but that may be beginning to change.
The Rajasthan Skill and Livelihood Development Corporation (RSLDC) has developed a four-month scheme for 100 men interested in developing their skills and who have families to support.
After an assessment, it’s established that some can cook, some know a little bookkeeping, others can bake and so on. For four months, trainers then work to build on these skills. Employers are enlisted to provide jobs and can visit the training centre.
The men are given shelter and food and receive 230 rupees (£2.30) a day, slightly more than India’s minimum wage. This small sum goes a long way to fostering self-respect in people who have known only insecurity.
For a fortnight before the training, the men are given practical and emotional support as they get their bearings. “We give them counselling, yoga, football, meditation, nutritious meals, clean beds and a good sleep. On the first day, they get a shower, have their unkempt hair and beards trimmed, and clean clothes,” says Niraj K Pawan, director of RSLDC.
Without counselling, many of the men would drop out, says Pawan. “They need someone to take an interest in them, to talk to them about what brought them to the street and whether they really do want to work and support themselves. I call it a ‘mind wash’ that helps them see clearly.”
Rakesh Jain, RSLDC’s deputy general manager, believes it is a crucial aspect of rehabilitation. “In one group, we took our eye off the ball and neglected the counselling, and several beggars dropped out. The counselling is as important as the training,” says Jain.
It is this holistic aspect that accounts for its initial success, says Neelam Sharma, a social worker who spent years trying to teach beggars basic numeracy and literacy in Delhi parks through her charitable organisation Deep Jyoti.
“I realised I was wasting my time. They can’t concentrate if they are hungry and worrying about their next meal. You have to look after all their basic needs – food, clothes and shelter – before you start anything and no government scheme has ever had a holistic approach. They are taken to a shelter, but what then? With no income, they are back on the streets,” she says.
The first question Pawan is asked is: “How will we eat if you take us off the streets?”
Of the first 100 men, 60 are now working in cafes, bakeries or in other trades, earning salaries to go into bank accounts the RSLDC opened for them. The remaining 40 are still in training.
A 2021 study by the Delhi-based Institute for Human Development found 80% of 20,000 people begging in the capital wanted to work.
According to the survey, beggars make less than 200 rupees a day on average, with many picking up casual labouring jobs whenever they could to supplement this.
This is what Surendra, 50, used to do. Sometimes he managed to send a little money back to his village but more often than not, this was impossible. Now, after his training, he works for Akshay Patra, which provides food parcels and meals at schools across India.
“I feel more in control of my life now, more secure. Before, I never used to know how each day was going to turn out. Since my work helps to feed hungry people, I try to do it well – I know what hunger is,” he says.
For Surendra, as well as 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 RSLDC people arranged for a doctor to treat my old injury. That made me think they were genuinely interested, not just in cleaning up the streets, but in my welfare,” says Surendra.
Rajasthan plans to replicate the scheme across the state. The Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment is working on launching 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 usually cynical about government schemes for “telling the poor how to live their lives”.
He is wary of those in power imposing their own notions of dignity on the poor, arguing that for some people, the little money they get from begging is preferable to working in a factory for 12 hours and earning only just enough to survive.
“That said, in principle, the scheme sounds fine. But we just have to watch out that such schemes don’t become a factory for churning out cheap, unprotected labour,” says Mander.