What several have labelled a "showcase of the country's emerging economic might", India plans to round up beggars to shield foreigners from New Delhi's rampant poverty during the Commonwealth Games.
The drive comes as the government is rushing to build 39 plush hotels to house visitors, new roads and overpasses and an air-conditioned Games village to accommodate athletes for the sporting event to be held in October 2010.
Advertisement"We Indians are used to beggars but Westerners are not and so we need to clean up," New Delhi's Social Welfare Minister Mangat Ram Singhal told AFP, saying the crackdown on beggars would go into high gear on Monday.
"We'll catch them all," he said.
Beggars at city traffic lights tap on car windows and cluster at tourist spots, asking residents and foreigners alike for loose change. They often carry thin babies or display running sores and bandaged limbs.
Some are missing an arm or a leg and many are children.
Under Indian law, begging is a criminal offence that carries a possible 10-year jail term.
The state minister has set up 12 teams of government officials to track down beggars, a mobile magistrate's court to hand out instant sentences and a control room for people to report anyone asking for money.
There is no official count of the number of beggars on the street but officials say it runs into the tens of thousands -- many of them migrants from some of India's poorest regions.
One beggar, Peter Antony, 60, said he wasn't worried by the crackdown as he sat at a tourist spot and picked up a coin flicked at him through a car window by motorist.
"Nothing will happen. They will lock me up and then release me after the Games," said Antony, who added he earns around 60 rupees (1.20 dollars) a day.
According to a World Bank report, 42 percent of India's nearly 1.2 billion population falls below the international poverty line of 1.25 dollars a day..
The campaign is part of a drive by civic authorities to turn the capital of 16 million people into a "world-class city."
In seeking to beautify the city, thousands of slum dwellings have already been demolished, evicting countless residents. The Games village has been built on the site of a demolished slum.
Singhal said beggars taken off the streets would be offered vocational retraining in such occupations as carpentry and candle-making.
The state government's plan has drawn fire from social activists.
"The government's mentality is that beggars are garbage and they must be put away to show foreigners what a clean city we have," said Kailash Satyarthi, founder of Save Children Campaign, an Indian non-governmental organisation.
But Singhal said he was determined to rid Delhi of the scourge of begging which police say is often controlled by criminal gangs who force the beggars to hand over a sizeable portion their earnings.
"Our main target will be the city centre where the foreigners come," Singhal said.
A separate plan to screen the city's sprawling slums is being studied that would involve planting bamboo trees along roads leading to the 17 Games venues.
"It was decided to consider the option since bamboo trees are tall and shady," Delhi's top bureaucrat Rakesh Mehta said.
According to the Right to Shelter Campaign group, Delhi has up to 200,000 homeless people -- many displaced by construction linked to the Games and the city's flagship metro service. Many beg for a living.
The Indian arm of the global anti-poverty agency ActionAid also criticised the anti-begging drive.
"Homeless people in urban centres are a reflection of poverty in rural areas and driving them away with the use of force will never be a solution," said Babu Mathew, ActionAid country head.
Delhi civil rights lawyer Sushil Kumar Singh promised to defend the beggars in court.
"Poverty and homelessness are not offences but the state has created legislation that makes them criminals," Singh said.
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