New Delhi: Seventy-year-old Shanti was a garland seller for 40 years on the streets of Delhi. Now she sits in a cold corner of a shelter for the homeless. She has lost her courage to venture out after being thrown into jail as part of a security drive for the Commonwealth Games (CWG).
One look and the wrinkles on her face tell her story.
"I don`t sell `gajras` (garlands) and balloons any more. I am tired and scared of another arrest," said Shanti, fiddling with the edge of her torn, discoloured sari at the shelter in Motia Khan in central Delhi.
She came out of jail two months ago. She was picked up by police that tried to clear the streets of vendors and beggars before the CWG.
"They even picked up my grandchildren who were sitting with me that day. For almost a year we were inside - my crime was that I was trying to earn a living.
"For years, I have slept on the pavement. For more than 40 years I have been doing this, then why should they realize one day that it is against the law?" an angry Shanti said.
In the absence of a national law, the Bombay Begging Prevention Act of 1959, which bans begging, vending on roads, cleaning vehicles at traffic junctions, singing for money in buses and displaying physical disability to seek alms was used for arresting vendors during and before the Oct 3-14 Games.
"They were asked to sign a contract at the time of release stating they will not return to their old profession and areas of operation," said Mansur Khan, member of the NGO Beghar Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti.
Government figures claim there are about 60,000 beggars, including street vendors, in the city.
But according to the National Association of Street Vendors of India, in the last two-and-a-half months, over 275,000 informal sector workers, including street vendors and ragpickers, have become jobless in the city due to CWG.
"In the run-up to the Games, homeless citizens were arrested and detained in custodial institutions on grounds of `begging`, with the sentences ranging from one to three years even though the majority of them were gainfully employed. Mothers were separated from their children. These are gross violations of human rights," said Shivani Chaudhry of the NGO Housing and Land Rights Network.
Swati Chauhan, 30, was termed a beggar when she was picked up by police three months ago from the Hanuman Mandir area in central Delhi.
"I was not begging; I was sitting on my husband`s rickshaw. I was tired of selling balloons on the road; so I went and sat on my husband`s rickshaw. They came and arrested me saying I was begging and it was illegal," Swati said.
Her husband was able to get her out in 22 days after raising a bail money of Rs.3,000.
"All the while in jail I was thinking about my three young daughters and crying. My husband is working double shifts to pay back the bail money with interest. I have started doing my work again: why are such laws only for people who are already struggling to survive?" added Chauhan.
Similar are the stories of Ratna Bai, her disabled daughter Bharti who was arrested with her infant child, and Tina and Babli, who used to sell pens and books respectively on the streets. Tina got so scared that once she was out of jail, she left for her village in Uttar Pradesh with her husband.
The women picked up were housed at the Nirmal Chhaya shelter and the men in Sewa Sadan Bhavan.
Suresh Kumar, 25, who sold incense sticks near the Pusa roundabout and was arrested five months back. With no family or friends around, it was the families of his jail inmates who paid his bail money.
"I don`t sell anything now. It`s been a month after coming out of jail; I am looking for a job as a car washer or any other labour related work. We are not begging; give us options of jobs," said Kumar.
"There needs to be a difference (in the law) between beggars and street vendors," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
Parvinder Singh, communication manager, ActionAid said, "The drive against beggars and vendors is criminalisation of poor people, for them trying to make a living without doing anything criminal.
"It is important to point out that law is being used to turn the poor into criminals - wanting and struggling to survive cannot be a crime."