ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Begging for Rights

Anti-begging laws criminalise poverty and attempt to banish the poor from the public gaze.

The legal position of beggars in India has always been precarious. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA), 1959, which has held sway for decades, rests on the premise that poverty equals criminality. This allows the state to arrest people without a warrant on nothing more than a “suspicion,” and put them out of the public gaze. Invariably, police raids to round up “beggars” and force them out of city limits are part of projects to “clean up” cities. India’s image, especially for the foreigner’s gaze, takes precedence over the plight of the banished. The Delhi High Court, earlier this month, has rectified this by conceding that begging is a structural problem. It argued that it is unfair of the state to add insult to injury and punish people for its own failures. The court quashed those provisions of the BPBA that make begging a punishable offence. However, its ruling is applicable only to Delhi.

The people targeted by the anti-begging laws are not in anyone’s “constituency” given their social and economic deprivation. Under the act, beggars, peddlers, small-time hawkers, street performers, ragpickers, and “loiterers” (including migrants), can be arrested without a warrant or let off on a bond or detained in a certified institution for two to three years and, on a second conviction, for 10 years. This was true in regard to the BPBA, which also asked for the detention of the dependants of the beggars. Effectively, this posits the beggar as a legal outsider: inhabiting the same territorial space that is India, but disenfranchised from the benefits of Indian citizenship that guarantees constitutional rights. Implied in this is the state’s stance that the rights that come with citizenship have to be bought with forms of privilege that lend a perception of legitimacy and “respectability” to the individual.

Case studies have shown that the legal due process is hardly ever followed by the magistrate courts, which send those arrested to beggar homes after conviction. It is enough for a person to “look like a beggar” in order to be arrested. The beggar homes are understaffed and face a severe paucity of resources; and the inmates are treated like free labour. Theoretically, the inmates are supposed to receive vocational training, but practically they come back to the same desperate situation.

The Ram Lakhan v State case of 2006, considered a landmark in the jurisprudence of this act, involved a “beggar” who was arrested in a raid, convicted, and sent to Tihar Jail for one year, instead of a certified institution. The Delhi High Court judge pointed out the difference between duress (forced by a criminal gang to beg) and necessity (forced to beg due to poverty, hunger and lack of legitimate choices). He also made what is now a historical observation: “They beg to survive, to remain alive. For any civilised society to have persons belonging to this category is a disgrace and a failure of the State. To subject them to further ignominy and deprivation by ordering their detention in a certified institution is nothing short of dehumanising them.”

In 1990, following a petition before the Bombay High Court, the court ordered a committee to present its report. The committee pointed out that there is no criteria to decide who is a beggar, who is sick, physically handicapped, or simply in need of economic help. In these raids, even those not begging but found in dirty clothes and wandering were arrested arbitrarily. Transgender persons, for example, are particularly vulnerable. Such a vast amount of unchecked power over certain sections of the marginalised population by means of this law gives the state machinery yet another tool to perpetuate entrenched societal biases against already vulnerable groups. Within the purview of what qualifies as “begging” come a wide variety of people who suffer from various kinds of—and often overlapping—marginalisation. The suggestions made by the committee are predictably gathering dust.

The recent ruling by the Delhi High Court has maintained the provisions in the act that penalise those employing or causing persons to solicit or receive alms. It has also called upon the city administration to curb any racket of forced begging after examining the sociological and economic aspects of the matter. It must be noted here that the criminal begging ring racketeers are hardly the ones who are arrested in the raids. While these persons invariably escape the law, the sentence they receive upon conviction (if at all) is three years.

It has been proved that the provisions of the act go against Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution and the state’s duty to promote the welfare of the disabled and unemployed.

Destitution is widely considered to be a product of the processes of a country’s political economy. In the absence of immediate structural improvement, the least the state governments in India can do is decriminalise begging. The Delhi High Court’s judgment accepts that there is a problem. The solution is staring us in the face.

Updated On : 28th Aug, 2018


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