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India's beggars court has Dickensian feel

As world games near, the number jailed is likely to rise.

NEW DELHI - Inside a tiny courtroom buzzing with flies, a police officer stands before a judge and carefully unfolds a white handkerchief. The damning evidence inside: 13 coins worth about 30 cents.

He says he found them in the pockets of Shanni Ram Ganga, a hunched man standing next to him facing a sentence of one to three years. Ganga's alleged crime: begging.

Beggars crowd every sidewalk in India, yet panhandling is illegal, so a separate judicial system exists just for those accused of pleading for coins in public. More than 1,400 people are serving sentences in beggars homes - run-down facilities often little better than prisons, critics say - and that number is expected to rise as the government "cleans up" the Indian capital to host the Commonwealth Games, a major sports competition, in 2010.

The beggars courts are corners of musty bureaucracy and Dickensian poverty untouched by India's surging prosperity. They're all but forgotten by most of the public, but are far from endangered.

There are an estimated 60,000 beggars in New Delhi, most earning 50 to 100 rupees a day, not much less than the working poor, according to a recent government-commissioned study on beggars. Many are handicapped. Nearly all hail from India's poor northern states. Most have no skills.

A waiting police van

Several times a week, about a dozen are swept up by the authorities and entered into the beggars court system.

On a blazing hot summer day, a group of lepers accused of begging at a city temple marched to a waiting police van as officers barked at them to stay in line.

Man had missing limbs and cruel disfigurements - one had two prosthetic legs and round paddles for his fingerless hands; another had toeless feet sticking out of his sandals.

They hadn't been begging as flagrantly as others nearby, but A.M. Pandey, the official leading the raid, said that they were sitting in hopes of charity and that was cause enough to lock them up. Warrants aren't necessary for arresting beggars, defined in Indian law as anyone "having no visible means of sustenance and wandering about."

Only one man put up a fight.

Ram Pal, 60, threw himself on the ground to touch the officers' feet, a sign of respect and humility in India, and pleaded for one more chance.

"You don't need me," he wailed. "I won't beg again."

'I have no one ...'

It was no use. Pandey and two police officers pried his fingers from the car door and pushed him in with the others.

"I am 100 percent sure they were begging," Pandey said as he ordered the men to sit on each other's laps to make room.

More than two dozen beggars remained in the plaza, but Pandey started the engine with a shrug.

"We don't have space," he said.

Some of the arrested men said they preferred incarceration to life on the streets.

"I want to go back to jail," said Arjun Behra, 45. "I have no one outside."

They were taken to a station house next to the court, and with a long wait ahead, two of the men unstrapped their prosthetic legs the way other men might loosen their ties.

Activists working on behalf of the beggars call the system inhumane.

"One has the right to dignity, right to life, which the government today is denying by putting these destitute people into jails," said Indu Prakash Singh of ActionAid, a nonprofit activist group.

Beggars court is its own fiefdom within India's famously dysfunctional court system. It's overseen in New Delhi by Suresh Gupta, who alone determines whether to release the accused with a warning or sentence them to incarceration.

On a recent morning, a line of about 20 men, most of them frail and dressed in tatters, squatted in a queue outside Gupta's small courtroom, waiting to be called. Gupta heard 16 cases, each lasting less than two minutes.

Most were represented by one of a few lawyers paid by nongovernmental groups. The lawyers don't spend much time meeting with their dozens of clients, who complain the defense is often cursory.

"The lawyer doesn't speak, he just sits there," said Zakir Hussain, 25, who said he was on his way to the doctor when he was arrested weeks before.

Many appearing in court for the first time got off with a warning.

Shanni Ram Ganga, the man found with 13 coins, was released four weeks after he was arrested after promising never to beg again.

Others get sentenced to one to three years, and repeat offenders can be sent away for up to 10 years.

"This is for the welfare of the beggars," Gupta said in an interview. "Is it good to beg on the streets? People complain if a person begs."

Until Gupta decides their fate, the men stay in a shabby building across a dusty courtyard from the court. They spend their days and nights on thin pads on the floor beneath barred windows. Rats scurry across the floor. Faded chalk marks on the walls count off some bygone prisoner's days.

Convicted beggars are sentenced to one of 12 beggars homes on New Delhi's outskirts.

At one such home in an industrial neighborhood, men wandered the relatively well-kept grounds, sitting in the shade or conducting Hindu rituals on the grass. Many spent their days napping on the floor inside stifling, cramped rooms packed with 10 to 20 others. Families almost never visit, and the men aren't allowed to leave.

"This is like a jail," said Sukh Bir, 56, half way through a one-year term after getting arrested asking for fruit. "You can only go from this side to that side."

There are fewer than 350 men there now, but there is capacity for more than 1,500. Officials at the home said shuttered buildings will likely be opened for new arrivals as the Commonwealth Games approach.

The institutions offer trade classes that are supposed to help the beggars find jobs upon release. But even government officials admit the program doesn't work because most beggars can't afford to turn newly learned skills into a business.

Ram Singh, 50, has spent five months in the beggars institution, and he has seven more to go.

"I don't want to be here," said Singh, who said he's a rickshaw driver, not a beggar. "I want to go out and I want to earn money."