Even in 2021, it is a harsh reality that our government has been unable to provide the bare necessities of the right to life to all of its citizens.
Every government’s top priority is to provide basic needs – health, shelter, and food – to its citizens. When a country fails to meet these basic needs, the number of dependent folks – beggars – expands. People beg on the streets not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. What’s even more stigmatising is that begging is largely considered a crime in most places, making the lives of people who are homeless miserable.
There is no central law in India that penalises begging. Despite this, 22 states (including a few Union Territories) have anti-begging laws in place. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (1959) serves as the model for all state anti-begging legislation. The act stipulates a penalty of more than three years in prison for the first conviction for begging, and a person can be imprisoned for ten years for a subsequent conviction.
After the Delhi High Court struck down the law that made begging in the Capital a crime in 2018, the Supreme Court earlier this year, in July 2021, dismissed petitioner Kush Kalra’s PIL, which sought the removal of all beggars from public places and traffic intersections.
The Supreme Court described it as a socioeconomic issue, and outright prohibiting beggary would be an “elitist view.”
There are still many debates among our nation’s fortunate population about whether or not begging should be considered a crime. Some endorse the idea of it, while others oppose it. Let’s take a quick look at this issue to get a better understanding of it.
Justice Chandrachud: why do people beg on streets is a reason of poverty. AS A SUPREME COURT WE WILL NOT TAKE A ELITIST VIEW. We cannot grant the prayer to restrain them from begging, this is a socio economic problem. we can have education for their children etc
— Bar & Bench (@barandbench) July 27, 2021
Beggary, like any other socioeconomic predicament, has multiple dimensions. Its origins can be found in the various patterns of its intertwined and interlocked social fabrics. There are no adequate provisions in India for the treatment and social rehabilitation of people who have visual, auditory, hearing impairment or mobility disability.
In the absence of any other viable option, such people are forced to beg. According to this article published by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India neglects 600,000 people who have visual impairment, 250,000 people who have auditory and hearing impairment, 100,000 people who are mentally ill and 1,000,000 people who have leprosy.
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There are several economic factors that generally cause people to resort to begging. Poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and income loss are all important factors to consider. Among the social factors that contribute to begging are hereditary occupation, family disarray, and widowhood.
Our physical environment can be extremely frustrating at times due to famines, earthquakes, drought, cyclones, or floods. All of these natural disasters can cause serious damage to property and agriculture, forcing people to flee their homes and resort to begging to alleviate hunger pangs.
One of the most gruesome scenes in the film Slumdog Millionaire involves a group of men purposefully maiming a boy in order for him to gain sympathy (and more money) as a street beggar. The men would approach children disguised as orphanage employees, bribe them with soda and food, and then send them out to beg for money. Of course, the men took whatever money the children returned with. Worse, the children who earn the most money are frequently those who are disabled in some way.
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While commuting, most of us have probably heard about how people on the streets begging for food or money are part of some”Mafia”. Begging has become a major business in India. In fact, begging cartels exist in cities such as Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
These organisations have their own figureheads. Each manager assigns a specific territory to a group of beggars, and the day’s earnings are distributed among them. It is difficult to tell who is a genuine beggar and who is not because appearances can be deceiving.
Children make up a sizable portion of this population.
According to India’s leading independent child rights’ NGO, Save the Children, 3 lakh children in India are forced to beg, with tactics ranging from drug addiction to threats of violence and actual beatings.
According to the Indian National Human Rights Commission, 40,000 children are abducted in India each year, with more than a quarter of them going untraced. It is commonly assumed that these children come from families who force them to beg.
While the leaders of these organisations deserve criminal charges and appropriate action to be taken to stop them, the criminalising laws impose restrictions on everyone. Including the innocent people who are being forced into it and the real people who are in need of resources that they cannot obtain from the government.
The current laws must be changed. They don’t need to criminalise begging, but they do need to find a way to keep the people safe. The provisions of anti-begging laws are highly arbitrary, and the law’s implementation is even more so.
Begging has grown at a rapid pace in India. It is estimated that 500,000 people in India are beggars. The government, various organisations, and activists claim that many measures have been taken to eliminate begging and that they have been somewhat successful. Several state governments have launched various assistance programmes to assist beggars and protect them from these laws.
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Mukhyamantri Bhikshavriti Nivaran Yojna was established in Bihar to protect and promote the rights of beggars by ensuring their care, protection, development, socioeconomic, and cultural empowerment through enabling policies and programmes.
Odisha’s government has taken positive steps to identify beggars and provide them with alternative solutions such as housing, insurance, Aadhar and ration cards, healthcare, and training for vocational skills for wage or self-employment. Several municipal corporations in Maharashtra, including Pune Corporation, have launched a “beggar free city” campaign.
Eradication of beggary and rehabilitation of beggars must take all of these factors into account and address each of them. In any case, the law is not a solution. Any law, no matter what it is, must be humane and show empathy for the poor and distressed.
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Nov ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.