There have all the beggars gone?

Alms-seekers, part of India's urban landscape for centuries, have vanished from the streets of the capital. Their absence is so conspicuous that the city almost seems naked without them.

In an ambitious campaign to eradicate begging as part of a general face lifting for the upcoming Asian Games here, the government has been rounding up itinerants and taking them to poorhouses or putting them to work as day laborers on public works projects.

Municipal authorities insist that the campaign will continue after the sports spectacular ends late this month and that the effort has a broad social purpose beyond the window dressing effect.

But many of the beggars remain unconvinced, social workers say, and have merely faded into slum colonies scattered around the city, waiting to return to their ancient profession.

Others, drawn to New Delhi by the prospect of cadging enough baksheesh to surpass India's $240 annual per capita income, may have returned to their rural villages to wait out the crackdown.

Special anti-begging squads of city police are combing the capital, arresting alms-seekers under the tough 1961 New Delhi Prevention of Begging Act and loading them into buses to be taken to poorhouses on the outskirts of the city.

At one of these houses, called Sewa Kutir, which also has a classification and processing center for arrested beggars, B.F. Sharma, the acting superintendent, said he has been handling an average of 80 to 90 beggars a day--a sharp increase from the 300 to 400 the center normally processes in a year.

"Of course this intensification is connected with the Asian Games, but it is also to clean up the city as a whole. Many of them think this is just for the games, so they have left for the time being. But the program will continue," Sharma said.

It is impossible to pinpoint the number of beggars in India. The 1971 census listed slightly more than 1 million, although estimates by social workers have ranged as high as 6 million out of a total population of nearly 800 million.

Sharma said that instilling a work ethic in the beggars is an uphill battle.

"They have no work habits, and begging is so easy. They can make 50 rupees $4.75 a day in the street," Sharma said. For ditch-digging or other hard construction labor, they could earn only about 11 rupees, or about $1.04, a day.

Police at the center said they recently processed one beggar who had 5,000 rupees, or about $475, tucked in pockets of his tattered clothing.

Some of the detained beggars retain one of the several lawyers who loiter at the magistrate's court at arraignment time, which usually is also sentencing time. But most accept their assignment to a poorhouse and then wait for an opportunity to walk away and resume their vocation.

Sharma said there is an element of futility in his job. "Begging can be reduced, but it can't be eradicated. After this program, they will come back. We have no doubts about that," he said. "Unless our society helps by not giving alms to beggars, then we are left with no choice but to do something."

In a country with so much abject poverty and a religious tradition of giving alms as a means of absolving sin, there is little likelihood that beggary will disappear on its own, Sharma said.

In fact, he said, the problem is likely to be compounded when the current convulsion of public works construction for the Asian Games is completed, and an estimated 100,000 migrant laborers from outlying states find themselves out of work.

Many of the migrants will have little incentive to return to their homes -- often in drought-ridden regions -- and can be expected to remain in the capital. Some of them, social workers say, inevitably will turn to begging to survive.

Meanwhile, police raids on the beggars' favored haunts continue, with a notable exception to the uncompromising spirit of the cleanup campaign: Snake charmers and beggars with performing monkeys, Sharma said, have been excluded from the roundup.

"We can't accommodate animals, and besides, those beggars regard what they do as an art. We just leave them alone," he said.