The Worm tells the tailors that his master trained others, with a personal touch, teaching them different styles. The master pays the police, finds the best place to sit and makes sure no one takes away that place. He even says: “It’s a game, like all other laws. Easy to play, once you know the rules.” The ‘Worm’ here is not a worm literally. He is metamorphosed into a worm, thanks to his physical disability. He is Shankar, a character in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance.

In 2006, the Minister of State for Social Justice, Dharmarao Baba Atram, announced that more than six lakh beggars of Mumbai annually earn a total income of Rs 180 crore. In 1963, Mumbai which had only 20,000 beggars had 55,000 of them in 1971.

Like prostitution, begging is one of the oldest professions on earth. Although varying in geography and time, begging is universal. Despite enforcing anti-beggary legislation in 16 states and two union territories, the problem still continues to exist in its worst form as it has become a profession for many. It sometimes proves a more lucrative option than working in a low-wage job. Although, beggars can be punished and arrested without any warrant for the offence of begging, the law has failed to curb the social evil as it has been barely enforced in the country.

Beggars pester passers-by at tourist spots, traffic junctions, shopping areas and bus terminals peering into taxi windows to get a few coins. It is these few coins given out of exasperation or a momentary flash of pity that adds to the staggering amount earned by them every year as estimated by the Government of India.

Beggar chiefs charge a percentage on the earnings of beggars. The Beggarmaster in A Fine Balance charges Rs 100 per week including space, food, clothing, protection and special items like bandages or crutches. He even bargains to purchase a group of crippled labourers from the Facilitator and at last, pays Rs 2,000 for them including ‘Worm’ Shankar, whom he had inherited from his father. It is nothing but a business to him. He says: “My business is looking after human lives. Don’t try to bargain with me, I’m not selling onions and potatoes in the bazaar.”

The National Human Rights Commission estimates an average of about 45,000 children missing every year in India. Of these, over 11,000 are never traced and most of them end up begging on streets, besides a meagre number of adoptions and labour markets. It is the family of the child that gets him into beggary. Some organised gangs even rent out children for begging for a paltry sum of Rs 20 or Rs 30 depending on the place where they are employed to beg. The kidnapped children are often maimed and crippled, their organs sold through rackets, and finally left in the lurch to beg.

Even if they are taken to the rehabilitation centres, it is not easy for them to give up the skills of easy earning. In some way or the other, they resume old habits, for old habits die hard.

The beggars are well organised and estimate their income and expenditure. If a beggar in a small town can earn Rs 2 or Rs 3 per day, a beggar in the city easily earns Rs 10 and during the festivals, it is more than Rs 30 per day. For a layman, it may appear to be a negligible amount. But they have nothing to spend on. The leftovers of the hotels and houses fill their tummies. The footpaths provide them shelter.

There are all kinds of beggars whose period of begging extends from five minutes to 50 years. Generally, the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed take to begging. The disabled naturally graduate into this profession. Just like any other professionals, they guard their territory with great care and unite to defend their sources of income. Many even have sizeable wealth which they accumulate by employing other smaller beggars. They have their own constituencies and even exchange verbal and physical abuse on encroaching beggars.

Beggary does not stop there itself, but leads to the next step, an outgrowth of begging. The young women take up prostitution and other small crimes. The children take to pick-pocketing and thefts at the market places, stealing of shoes in temples.

In our society, most people give alms to beggars to earn divine grace rather than out of sympathy for them. Though a total ban on begging would not be fruitful, it has become the need of the hour. Instead of offering money to them, they should be encouraged to work and earn a livelihood.

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