Can We Agree That Begging Is Not A Criminal Matter But A Social Issue?

Last year, the Delhi High Court struck down 25 sections of the Bombay Prevention of begging act 1959 (as extended to Delhi) which criminalised begging and other provisions which dealt with the ‘offence of begging’. These included the powers of police, nature of the enquiry conducted, punishments to be awarded for the said offence etc. The court deemed the provisions as unconstitutional and violative of the fundamental rights of the beggars. The Act became a tool to exploit beggars and homeless, arbitrarily detain them and moreover, it denied them the right to express their state of destitution and live through it.

But the original formulated law is still applicable in the state of Maharashtra. Shouldn’t the provisions be struck down in Maharashtra too? Is it the beggar’s fault if the state has failed to provide for him? In this respect, this article highlights the draconian nature of the law and argues that the act should be declared unconstitutional and should be replaced with a law that aims at improving the conditions of the destitute than criminalise them.

Right to live with dignity is an integral part of a citizen’s right. This law steals the dignity of the beggars and homeless by blaming them for who they are and how they sustain themselves. Apart from being unconstitutional, the law is ambiguous and arbitrary in nature for many reasons.

It does not make any distinction between forced begging and begging due to necessity. While the former should definitely be criminalised, the latter shouldn’t. In this regard, the Delhi HC rightly observed, people beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to”.

The act defines begging as ‘Soliciting or receiving alms, in a public place whether or not under any pretence such as singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale’. Now, this definition of begging is quite misleading for two reasons. First, the mentioned activities are skills of people which they use to sustain themselves. Second, its general nature doesn’t make any distinction between homeless people and beggars. Thus, under this draconian law, not only beggars but even the homeless remain under constant fear of being detained by police, as they have the power to arrest anyone in the public space who seems like a beggar having no visible means of subsistence. 

As per the Indian Penal code, detention up-to 10 years is considered as rigorous imprisonment. Is begging so harsh a “crime” that it needs such treatment? However, this act has provisions which can detain the beggar for three years, at the time of the first arrest, and if found begging again, the beggar can be imprisoned for up to 10 years. In some cases, those dependent on the beggars can also be arrested. 

Mostly, when citizens are arrested under this law in Mumbai and its surrounding areas, they are brought to the Chembur Beggars home. The objectives of these houses are to train beggars with vocational skills and provide them with rehabilitation. This might seem like a positive step but the punitive approach adopted to achieve this demotivates them to learn. Moreover, the training provided is not relevant and sufficient to make the beggar an independent earner. Therefore, even after release, the beggar is likely to remain unemployed and give in to begging again. In some cases, the beggars are forced to do agricultural labour in the pretext of ‘vocational training’ and the wages paid are also minimal.

Even the conditions of the beggars’ houses are inhumane. Studies report that the in house facilities are worse than those of prisons and those detained do not have access to basic amenities such as drinking water, food, bathing, clean bedding, medical facilities, A report by Koshish, a team that works for beggar rights, describes the condition of the house as ‘depressing’ and without adequate infrastructure.

Though, in a way, the underlying objectives of the act may be the prevention of begging and upliftment of beggars through training and rehabilitation, but can’t this be done without putting a tag of ‘criminal’ on them? The detention of a beggar or a non-beggar (arrested due to suspicion) can have a psychological impact. The families of the beggars and the homeless might see them as criminals or they themselves can start to feel like one. This can lead to more issues, such as rejection from family members, and can also lead to mental illnesses. Not just this, but it can also further change how society looks at the destitute. This would make the process of complete integration of society far more difficult.

Begging is not a criminal matter but a social issue. The government has to change the way it looks at the downtrodden. Only a rehabilitative approach can lead to their upliftment and the Centre did make a step towards this by introducing a model bill in 2015. The draft bill titled as ‘The persons in destitution (protection, care and rehabilitation) Bill 2015’, decriminalises begging and has provisions for the welfare of the destitute, beggars and persons with disabilities. It aims to provide them with care, protection, training, counselling and shelter. The discussions on this bill were dropped after 2016 but if implemented the centre expects the states to adopt this approach.

Even in the states, particularly Maharashtra, rehabilitative approaches have been adopted. For instance, in 2018, a charity drive to be led by the chief commissioner aimed to make the state ‘beggar free’, but no data is available on whether the drive was actually conducted, and if yes, what was the impact.

Before making further legislations or void announcements, maybe the Maharashtra government and other state governments who have adopted the Maharashtra model can start by striking down the unconstitutional law and provide at least some relief to the beggars and homeless. 

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