Begging the question

Posted on March 14, 2009 in Society

Laxmi (name changed), aged fifty years, belonged to Nepal. She was enticed away from her home by one of her friends who gave her a false promise of a good job in Delhi. On the way from her home to Delhi, however, the friend left her at one of the stations, either intentionally or accidentally. She waited for her friend to come till the train moved ahead from that station. She was left alone, and she had no option but to move, as the train moved to Delhi. She could not return to her family as she felt that her family might not accept her anymore. She had to begin her new life on the New Delhi Railway Station. She was twenty years of age at that time. She spent a number of years on the railway platforms. During her stay on the railway platforms, she was picked up by the Social Welfare Department raiding squad for the “act of begging”. She was brought to the legal processes and ultimately the Court found her “guilty” and ordered her to be detained in a Certified Institution for a period of one year. After serving the detention, she came out and changed her place of stay to the Hanuman Temple in Connaught Place, Delhi. From the Hanuman Temple also, she was picked up several times. Every time she was back to the same life at the temple.

Just A Vicious Circle
Radha, aged thirty years, (name changed) belonged to Delhi. She was married about fifteen years back. Immediately after her marriage, she came to know of her husband’s illegitimate relations with another woman. The marriage broke down. She came back to her parents’ house. Her life was normal in the parents’ house till they were alive. After her parents expired and her brother got married, her life became miserable in the parents’ house too. Her sisterin- law would not let her live in the house. She had to leave her parents’ house and take refuge in a gurudwara.

There can be any number of reasons why women leave their families and take refuge in railway platforms, pavements, temples or gurudwaras. Domestic violence, alcoholic partner, death of the husband or other familial relations, the need to look after the children after the death of the husband and familial relations, being enticed away from home by a friend or a relative who makes false promises and later leaves her in the lurch, can be some of the reasons. After women lose their homes, a different, and perhaps more painful struggle begins in their lives. Such women may try to earn a living through working as a domestic help, through hawking, etc. But the rare availability of work opportunities combined with other reasons may compel them to depend for food, clothes, etc. on temples and gurudwaras. They may have to resort to begging in the streets. They may set up some temporary settlements but these also do not give them any security, as they can be demolished any time and such women can be forced to move to railway platforms, pavements, temples or gurudwaras. They have their medical needs, which remain uncared for. In a nutshell, such women are in a state of utter helplessness.

The Act has totally failed to achieve its stated objectives except one, namely, ‘the custody, trial and punishment of beggar offenders’. The objectives, namely, ‘the prevention of begging’, or ‘the detention, training and employment of beggars and their dependents’ have proved to be a mere camouflage. It has failed to “prevent” begging as it is based on a wrong approach to the entire issue. In the absence of a system to ensure that people in need (social, economic, medical,etc.) are not forced to resort to begging, the .law providing for “prevention of begging” is bound to fail. The ‘detention, training and employment of beggars and their dependents’ has not, even in a single case in the last fortythree years of the existence of the Act, been translated into reality. There has always been “detention” devoid of any “training” and “employment” resulting in a vicious circle – arrest, detention, release. All the women on railway platforms, pavements, in temples or gurudwaras, who can be covered under this Act, would have the same experience to share. Laxmi, whose case study has been set out in the beginning,was arrested and detained several times and every time she had to come back to the temple.

The Act has failed to bring about any change for the better in the lives of such women. Their lives have rather been made more miserable by the cycle of arrest, detention and release that the Act has created, in effect. They are arrested and produced before the Court (“Court” means any Court exercising criminal jurisdiction in the area). The Court either discharges them recoding the finding that they were not “found begging” or orders them to be detained in a Certified Institution for a specified period of time recording the finding that they were ‘found begging’. In both the cases, they are released and get back to the streets after a period of time, in the former case after spending a period of one or two months in judicial custody and in the latter after serving the specified period of detention in a Certified Institution. This process does not effect any positive change in their lives.

What is to be Done?

What is required for effecting a positive change in the lives of the women, who have lost their homes and have, in the absence of options, resorted to railway platforms, pavements, temples or gurudwaras for food to eat and place to stay, is the big question. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, offers no answer to this question. A criminal legal framework providing for “arrest”, “inquiry” (which is no different from a criminal trial) and “detention” (which is no different from imprisonment) is not what is required for changing the lives of such women for the better. It has, in fact, been prosecuting and punishing such women for no “guilt” of their own. It has been making them move in the vicious circle. They need a safe place to stay, food to eat and to feed their children, if they have any, and clothes to wear; they may have their medical or other needs, too. What system should be structured to ensure that their needs are fulfilled and they are not forced to resort to railway platforms, pavements, temples or gurudwaras? Who should be held responsible for ensuring such a structure?

Note: The case studies are based on the information collected from Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan.

Source:, written by: Sushil Kumar Singh, is an advocate. He has been working with Criminal Justice Initiative (Human Rights Law Network, Delhi) for free legal aid to people apprehended under the BPBA, 1959.