At Kumbh Mela, sadhus and akhadas galore, but how many religious mendicants are there?

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Updated: February 14, 2019 5:29:19 AM

State-wise, with an aggregate of 81,244, West Bengal leads by a considerable margin, followed by UP. These numbers differ slightly from figures given in the ministry of social justice and empowerment’s handbook on social welfare statistics (January 2016).

Sadhus take a holy dip at Sangam during Makar Sankranti, on the first day of the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. (PTI Photo)

An un-starred question on beggary was answered in the Lok Sabha on March 8, 2016, by the minister of state for social justice and empowerment. According to the Census 2011, the total number of beggars and vagrants in India is 413,670—221,673 males and 191,997 females. State-wise, with an aggregate of 81,244, West Bengal leads by a considerable margin, followed by UP. These numbers differ slightly from figures given in the ministry of social justice and empowerment’s handbook on social welfare statistics (January 2016). The handbook has two sets of numbers from two separate sources—Census 2011 and SECC, 2011 (rural). From the Census 2011, there are 372,217 beggars and vagrants in India—197,725 males and 174,492 females.

What is a vagrant and why do we still use such a term? Several states have anti-beggary legislation—Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Delhi. There can be an entirely legitimate debate about the working and refinement of this anti-beggary legislation, but that is not the focus of this column. The word “vagrant” is a colonial legacy from the English, reflective of the belief that able-bodied poor must be made to compulsorily work and not laze around.

England had a Vagabonds and Beggars Act in 1494. This went through several versions and eventually became the 1824 Vagrants Act. We still carry vestigial legacies of such notions in sections of the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code). What is the difference between a vagrant and a beggar? A vagrant has no fixed abode and wanders around. Is a vagrant a beggar who roams around? Is a non-beggar who roams around a vagrant?

By that definition, a religious mendicant is a vagrant. These are legal issues and can be pinned down only through a piece of legislation. In that list of state-specific legislation, all but two states incorporate beggary, but not vagrancy. The two Acts that mention vagrancy are the Bengal Vagrancy Act (1943) and Cochin Vagrancy Act (1945), applicable to some parts of Kerala. For West Bengal, a “vagrant means a person found asking for alms in any public place, or wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner as makes it likely that such person exists by asking for alms but does not include a person collecting money or asking for food or gifts for a prescribed purpose”. Cochin has similar provisions. As I said, though the legislation may be directed against beggary, itinerant or stationary, it seems to legally cover religious mendicants.

As everyone knows, a Kumbh Mela is under way in Prayagraj. When I visited the Mela, I was told 100,000 sadhus have temporarily set up abode there. How does one know the number? I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. I can understand some sanctity associated with the figure if the sadhu is a member of one of the recognised akhadas.

But not every sadhu is a member of an akhada. Broadening the question, how many sadhus/sannyasis are there in India? Broadening it even further, how many religious mendicants (irrespective of religion) are there? Typically, the Census should give answers. Indeed, pre-independence Censuses did collect such figures.

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For example, in 1911, there were 979,293 fakirs, 814,365 yogis and 698,036 mendicants. Unless I have missed something, Censuses today don’t collect these numbers. Take the household Census 2011 schedule, which is focused on main workers and marginal workers, with a few questions for non-workers. If I am a non-worker, I tick one of several options. I can say ‘beggar’, or I can say ‘other’. Since “other” isn’t disaggregated further, I think the Census should simply list ‘beggar’ and not ‘beggar and vagrant’.

To return to the question of a religious mendicant, what happens? There is no household to be visited. How do I get numbers, if at all? There have been court cases where courts have barred sannyasis from getting involved in property disputes. If you have become a sannyasi, you have severed all links with this world, including property rights. So runs the argument. At the Mela, my wife asked a naga sannyasi about the watch he was wearing. That answer isn’t important.

More importantly, he unhappily complained that, thanks to being the head of an akhada, he now had to open a bank account (for the akhada) and therefore get an Aadhaar number, against the principles of a sannyasa. Thus, sannyasis have started to procure legal identities.

Do they have Census identification? The ministry’s handbook also gives figures from SECC (rural). The heading isn’t ‘beggars and vagrants’. It is ‘households engaged in begging, charity and alms collection’, which seems to be a broader category than ‘begging and vagrants’. The SECC question is also fairly broad. It asks about the main source of household income and can elicit a possible response of begging/charity/alms collection. We are given a figure of 668,479 households in rural India. For rural India, Census 2011 gives a figure of 236,850 individuals. Though they belong to the same year, there are several reasons why one can’t directly compare Census data with SECC’s. In any event, both use the household as a unit and religious mendicants are outside this unit. Hence, I think we had better numbers for religious mendicants in 1911 than in 2011, or 2019. If you are asked for a figure, say 2.5 lakh. That was roughly the figure in 1911. With a 2.5 lakh base, 1 lakh in the Kumbh Mela is plausible.

(Author is Chairman, Economic advisory council to the prime minister. Views are personal.)

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