Delhi, Maharashtra and Rajasthan are taking steps to rewrite the unconstitutional law on beggary and decriminalise poverty

According to the 1959 law on beggary, Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, anyone perceived as having “no visible means of subsistence” and “wandering about” can be branded a beggar and detained in certified institutions for a period of not less than one year and up to 10 years for second time offenders.

For many decades, the carte blanche powers that the law bestows on enforcement agencies has resulted in the detention of not only poor beggars but also of disabled persons and persons trying to eke out a living by offering small articles for sale. Rag pickers and de-notified tribes engaged in earning paltry sums by singing, dancing, fortune telling or performing have also been at the receiving end of the archaic law.

Sadly, the issue only catches the public’s eye when there are deaths inside a beggar’s home, for instance, when 286 beggars died in 2010 in Bangalore or when sewage water mixed with drinking water led to the death of beggars at a home in Delhi. Around 30 beggars died by consuming ‘charitable’ food that was donated to a home. It is an offense to refuse food (or not behave) inside such an institution under the law.

For the first time, perhaps, the failure of the law has been recognised and the Delhi and Maharashtra governments have given an in principle nod to ending it. In Delhi, a committee has been set up to give recommendations to the government on what needs to be done next.

Dr Usha Ramanathan, independent law researcher is part of the committee and is optimistic of the changes that can be brought about. She says, “It is an extraordinary admission of how badly the law has functioned and that it cannot afford to be continued. It is the responsibility of the State to take care of people in destitution and there can be no compromise on that. I believe that the law should be repealed and a policy should be put in place. We cannot have coercive custodial incarceration of poverty.”

The law is unconstitutional and is more about social control than helping persons in beggary, she says.

“The anti-poor prejudice is so deep in our country that they are treated as a nuisance and criminalised. The idea of ending beggary has to start with ending the causes of beggary. It is one of the methods of survival for people who don’t have enough, to go to those who have enough, when they are hungry. It is drastically wrong to criminalise such a thing,” she says.

Moreover, the presence of mobile courts that are sent to round up beggars is also a presumption of guilt on the part of the beggars. Instead, they should be given vocational training and supported to support themselves, she adds.

Mohd Tarique of Koshish, TISS is also on the committee and runs rehabilitation programmes including legal aid, reintegration with families and vocational training units inside the beggar’s homes. Around 200-250 people are picked up in a month and brought to the homes in Delhi, he says.

“Under the present law any scruffy looking person can be picked up and locked away in a beggar’s home. Law provides even for visually challenged or physically disabled persons earning livelihood by selling articles to be picked up and detained indefinitely. It’s crazy,” he says. Tarique and his team motivate and counsel beggars to give up begging and take up livelihood and link them with employers. Most prospective employers have apprehensions but the team offers them an employee only after talking to them and bringing them on board. Many ex-beggars have found employment as car mechanics, security, in furniture and tea shops, mostly in the informal sector. But for this to work on a mass scale, there is need for recognition and the government’s increased support, says Tarique. The intervention for women, who come inside homes, is different. Most of them have mental health issues and have faced abuse on the streets and so priority for them is not employment but treatment, tracing their family and reuniting.

Dr Amod, also on the committee, says that a lot of infrastructure and money has gone into creating these institutions which are ‘fortunately’ not being used. These could be used for taking care of the destitute instead.

“The law should go and the State should provide complete care. There should be a helpline for the hungry and the system should be able to reach any hungry person anywhere. Instead of people giving food and clothes on the streets in an undignified manner, systems should be put in place to do the same. There needs to be a structural change and political will,” he says.

“We are in a country where the idea of poor getting jobs is unthinkable, where we have a skill development council that doesn’t even think of the poor, where the poor due to illiteracy are out of many jobs and there is mass displacement, where there is a ‘cracking down’ on the informal sector where persons are trying to make two ends meet by selling stuff on thela gaadis are not being allowed to do so. It is difficult to bring about a change, but a repeal of the law will reduce this kind of pressure on the poor,” says Dr Ramanathan.

Apart from Delhi and Maharashtra, Rajasthan, which currently does not have a law on beggary, is trying to introduce a law that will help the poor and not penalise them.

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