‘Traditional begging has been an accepted practice and in fact was an accepted way of life in India and giving alms was inbuilt in social fabric.’, these words of Prof Upendra Baxi are a direct attack on the very common notion that India being ‘THE GOLDEN BIRD’ has always been a prosperous nation with rich heritage and no vulnerability around. There is no denying the fact that it is the truth. But only the half truth! The bitter reality is that begging and vagrancy in India has been in existence since ages. Beggars have been sharing the space with the privileged section of human race since the dawn of the recorded history, in fact since before that. Thereby, beggary as a phenomenon has prevailed in India and as a matter of fact throughout the world since time immemorial.
As individuals, we all are born with high self-esteem and dignity and manifestly no one would like to put it at stake. However, it is those times in every individual’s life that force them to stand on a crossing wherein they have to choose between their life & family and their dignity. And these are exactly those tough times when people let go the latter and thereby opt for life full of miseries and vulnerability by becoming BEGGARS (not by choice!). In this modern era of globalization where Indian currency has become Asia’s Best performing Currency, India still witnesses half of its population sleeping hungry and thereby making the line separating beggars from casual poor blur, very blur. When we talk particularly about the Indian scenario, beggary was an accepted way of living and providing alms was considered as a stepping stone to reach the so called stage of salvation. It was only in 19th century that the legislature intervened into the age old practice of begging through the enactment of anti-begging laws in the three presidency towns when they were devastatingly hit by the great famine. These anti-beggary laws penalized ‘beggary’ in toto, thereby facing the fierce criticism and storm of anger of majority of the country since it not only aimed to penalize beggary that was deeply ingrained in the roots of the Indian society but also had beggars as well as their dependants at the edge of its sword.
With no law at the Central level against beggary, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 acts a derivative for around 22 states with the effect of criminalizing beggary. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 came into force to be applied in Bombay only. However, the said Act has been since then adapted in toto or with a few minor changes by a total of 22 states including two Union Territories as well. But much to the dismay of the beggars and the society at large, these laws do not regulate the practice of beggary or provide any practical solution to the problem rather criminalize the practice of beggary, leading to the detention of individuals who are prey at the hand of destiny and thus are very rightly termed as ‘Draconian Laws’. These laws criminalize not only begging but the actual state of poverty since they aim at putting behind the bars every individual who earn through singing, snake charming, selling on streets, have dwelling on street-side, etc.
With the advent of Independence in India, the strong headed government has been continuously trying to uplift the nation be it socially, economically or culturally. The embarking transition from laissez faire to that of a welfare state imposed upon the Government a duty to secure the socio-economic well being of its citizens. However, the bitter truth is that India at that time was still recovering itself from the tragedy of partition post Independence and the devastation and massacre that followed. At that point of time, the Nehru Government was so gravely indulged with the issues of establishing the unity, maintaining political stability and security of the nation as a whole from external as well as internal adversaries that it was is in no position to secure the socio-economic well being or for that matter even grant any sort of aid to this needy section. The major reason behind this is the devil of poverty that continues to remain an obstruction on the path of development of India since very beginning. The unequal distribution of wealth across the nation, the corrupt practices and various scams has further added on to the problem. However, with the passage of time things have got better and the major problems of that time have been resolved but the critical situation of beggars and the legal position regarding beggary still remains the same. With the advent of globalization, India as a nation has gained heights in its inevitable achievements, but no government till now has paid any heed to this vulnerable section of the society and thereby their inaction has created so much of vagueness in this area with the very state of poverty being criminalized in certain states and decriminalized in others in absence of any Central Law on the said subject matter.
Since the prevalent anti-beggary law in certain states and Union Territories is nothing but an adaption of Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959, let us begin with analyzing the same. The very act of criminalizing the practice of beggary is a living example of ‘the running away of the Government from its responsibilities as a welfare state.’ Beggary in itself is a problem not just at the individual level but for the Nation as a whole. However, the Government and the people of India prefer to have a completely contrary view regarding this. The new millennium Government considers beggary as a symbol of laziness and moral degeneration, hence regard them as nuisance. Indian Beggary Laws are nothing but a replica of age-old European Vagrancy laws that held poor criminally responsible for their vulnerability instead of stepping into their shoes for understanding them and resolving the issue. These laws are aimed at removing the BEGGARS from the society and not BEEGARY as it was evident from the act of the Government of detaining the beggars in Delhi during the Commonwealth Games, 2010.
The very fact that Anti-Beggary Laws have criminalized beggary in itself leads to a very critical situation wherein beggars are at the mercy of police officers facing dismissive treatment in the Police Stations as well as Courts, which further represents nothing but mismanagement, disrespect and discrimination with an entire section of the society. The law declares every individual earning livelihood through singing, snake charming, selling on streets, have dwelling on street-side, etc. as a criminal and subsequently provides for punishment of imprisonment with fine. All such acts on part of the states are like mocking at the vulnerability of those beggars and further victimizing those who are the victims of unfortunate destiny. Thus, this is totally an “Uncalled Approach” by law. This is the high time that India’s policy makers get into the deep roots of begging and make laws with a consistent and humane approach that would focus on rehabilitating the beggars and needy instead of penalizing.
Such arbitrary actions of the State Governments not only are in violation of the basic principles of the Constitution of India but also deprive these beggars of their very human rights. Human Rights are above all other rights, they ensure every privilege and essential that a person should have by virtue of just being born in the ‘Human Race’. Ours being a welfare nation, we are signatory or party to many International Treaties and Conventions regarding Human Rights such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, etc. In the same direction, our Constitution envisages a duty on the state to ensure the socio-economic well being of its citizens, social order for the promotion of welfare of people and also providing relief to the disabled and unemployable. Article 14 provides for right to equal treatment. Article 21 of the Constitution that provides for ‘The Right to Life and Personal Liberty’ has been broadly interpreted by Hon’ble Supreme Court of India to include within its ambit ‘Right to Life with Human Dignity, free from each and every vulnerable and exploitative condition’. Article 23 of The Constitution of India provides for ‘Right Against Exploitation’ and thereby makes it a duty of the state to ensure that no citizen is living in exploitative or vulnerable condition, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. It can be seen as an escape against beggary, human trafficking and alike practices. When read with Article 39(e) and Article 39(f), it makes it obligatory for the State to protect its citizens from exploitation along with moral and material abandonment. This makes the provisions and the approach of the Act inconsistent. The makers of India had a vision of a beautiful nation- diverse yet united, prosperous, helping each other but it seems as if our forefathers and freedom fighters would have died once again after seeing the present condition of the nation. The situation of beggars in our country is a living example of the miserable and shameful failure of the democratic setup of the nation or to say of the politicians of our country and thereby it becomes a failure of us.
India being at such a critical stage when we are in the spotlight of International Organisations and other developed Countries for one reason or the other, this is the high time that the said injustice is undone and mandatory steps are taken up by the respective wings of the Government. An awakening initiative in this regard by Delhi High Court is applaudable wherein the Hon’ble Bench with Hon’ble Acting C.J. Geeta Mittal herself decriminalized begging by declaring almost 25 provisions of the derivative of Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 as ‘unconstitutional’. In its judgment in the case of Harsh Mander v. UOI and Kanika Sawhney v. UOI, the Court observed that “Criminalizing begging is nothing but a direct attack on the Fundamental Rights of the poorest of the lot in their process to somehow access basic necessities like food and shelter.”
A very obvious drawing from the said judgment is that the fundamental loophole lies in the machinery adopted by the state to protect its citizens who are needy and unable to maintain themselves. In fact, this judgment should act as an eye-opener for the Central government as well as all those states who have been doing injustice with its citizens by failing to fulfill their duty of providing a life with dignity to its citizens and also mocking their vulnerability as well as adding on to their miserability by declaring them as criminals because of the very virtue of poverty.
Well! When we talk about the steps taken by the Central Government in this regard, it is mandatory to mention that a bill called THE PERSON IN DESTITUTION (PROTECTION, CARE AND REHABILITATION) BILL, 2015 was drafted that asks the respective State Governments to establish rehabilitation centers and also provide required training to the beggars. Further, a model bill in this pursuance was sent to the State Governments for their comments and recommendations. The proposed model bill surely marks a progressive shift towards the rehabilitative approach but does not stop perceiving poverty as indicative of begging, and continues to allow arbitrariness of police officials and indefinite detainment. However, no discussion on the bill has been done after that and thus it still remains a question that when will India see the dawn when this Bill would become an Act. Till then, all that remains is seeing how various State Governments abandon their piecemeal approach in dealing with this issue.
Enough has been discussed about the loopholes in the present legal approach regarding beggars and thereby beggary. All we draw from this is that the approach as a whole is draconian and this demands for revolutionary changes. Thus, an effort here is made to make a few suggestions. As already discussed, beggars beg not because they wish to but because they have to. In such a scenario, the artificial means of making beggars invisible as a resort to the problem would not suffice. So the government should fulfill its moral as well as legal obligation to secure all its citizens socio-economic well being through methods that actually curb the problem rather than hiding it. The usual and age-old initiative of the Government of criminalizing beggary is going to be of no help at all and as a matter of fact it makes the situation even worse. Today, it is required that we adopt punitive as well as therapeutic approach together rather than one alone because through the other way the object can never be fulfilled. Criminalizing beggary without going into its root cause, i.e., poverty which has unending structural reasons such as lack of education, unemployment, social protection, caste and ethnicity based reservation, idleness, physical incapability, mental challenges, etc. snatches away from those without food, shelter and clothing even the basic Human and Fundamental Rights. The current approach of Indian laws towards beggars and beggary lack humanity and cohesiveness. Laws aiming at eradicating the problem from its roots are needed. Thus, the basic objective of Beggary Regulation Laws should be the rehabilitation of needy and poverty stricken people. It is the need of the hour that a well thought legal and institutional framework is introduced ensuring the fair administration and implementation at ground level of New Beggary Regulating Law with humane approach by organizing effective implementing agencies thereby assuring that respective states abide by their duty of reintegrating the beggars into the society so that they do not end up begging again. This can be done by organizing official but personal surveys and forming the laws accordingly. Also, different laws for voluntary and involuntary beggary should be made respectively.
The very first thing we need is laws that distinguish between beggars and others like street vendors, nomadic tribes, street performers, homeless, pavement workers, migrant workers, etc. As a matter of fact, the very definition of ‘Beggar’ and ‘Beggary’ itself needs to be restructured and redefined keeping in mind the socio-economic-cultural factors of the Indian society. According to an in-depth study, beggars are broadly categorized into four major kinds:
- Beggars not wishing to work.
- Beggars unable to work due to substance addiction.
- Beggars at the mercy of begging mafias.
- Destitute and starving beggars.
These four categories are very broad and very distinct. So an initiative to make laws distinctively and accordingly should be taken so as to not include all of them under one umbrella. Also, stringent laws so as to discourage professional begging in the forms of begging mafias or begging rackets must be framed so as to criminalize not beggary by poverty and destiny stricken people but the acts of begging mafias who forcibly make people beg for them and also make them crippled, disabled, etc so as to seek more alms because of pity. The Begging mafias/ rackets should be attacked and tackled more seriously and in fact should be considered either more heinous or at least at equal footing with the offences of kidnapping and abduction. Although the very practice of beggary should be decriminalized but the defaulters among these, i.e., people getting engaged in begging even after attaining assistance and aid should not be spared.
Along with this, Laws that aim at rehabilitating and ultimately integrating the victims with the society are needed rather than the ones that confine them and detain them. The provisions regarding rehabilitation centers, medical examination, medical aid, teaching of agricultural and industrial techniques, etc that prevail in existing anti-beggary laws for ‘beggars as criminals’ should be restructured and made applicable to all the beggars who need such aid. For this, there should be well regulated and well equipped rehabilitation centers with qualified deserving managers and staff. The government should make provisions regarding this based on humanitarian grounds and there should be left no scope of maladministration over here with proper check in fixed intervals. The rehabilitation and development scheme should include providence of proper identity to everyone coming under the ambit through Aadhar Card, Ration Card, Voter Id, etc; provide proper basic education to all and complete education to all the children; make everyone socially, legally and politically aware of everything including their rights; develop their skills; organize special training and self-help programs; encourage them to learn, get abled and earn their own living.
Further, provisions regarding summary trial in case of arrest under anti-beggary laws need a relook and change. It is also needed that the problem of unemployment is looked at and considered seriously by the government, thereby eradicating the root cause of poverty and ultimately beggary. Lastly, Uniform Law regarding beggary should be made to be applicable throughout the country following the principle of “ONE NATION, ONE LAW” so that there remains no pluranimity on the subject.
To conclude, it can be said that the current legal approach of India in criminalizing beggary goes against the social perception and ethical principles of the society and this therefore calls for a relook at the current laws. Even after 67 years of Independence, the Rights guaranteed by The Constitution of India are not served equally to its every citizen and as a matter of fact laws violating the very provisions of the Constitution are in existence. This scenario is very alarming and thus needs to be changed at once. At the end, all I do is make an appeal:
“You call them beggars who are not one by choice! You can find them on roads with their palms in front of you. Sometimes they are without hands, limbs and eyes. Sometimes they are just too old and feeble. Well! Do you really think God has created them this way hence they took up this noble profession or you think they hurt themselves so that people have more pity on them! Don’t you get it! 99% of them are fake. Believe me, they need your help but not the one that you provide them. They are a slave of begging mafias and rackets and they cannot come out of it unless you help them. They are stuck in a web. Please help them come out of this hell. Do not help them by giving money. Bring an end to beggary. Bring the much needed change!”
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