Written by – Sruthi Sadhasivam
Begging is not a crime for it to be criminalized. It is a socio-economic disaster that must be cured by satiating the socio-economic needs of the society. Equitable conditions, gender equality, rationalism and equal access to essential facilities are vital factors to curb begging culture. Thereby, criminalizing beggary is like criminalizing poverty. Acts such as beggary and suicide require sensitivity coupled with a rational mindset to deal with them. In both cases the actors are helpless and hopeless. Therefore, negative reinforcement is unlikely to work in these cases.
In a written reply to the Rajya Sabha, India’s Social Justice Minister, Thawar Chand Gehlot claimed that there are about 4,13,670 beggars in India, in which 2,21,673 are males and 1,91,997 are female beggars. As per the 2011 census, West Bengal has the highest number of beggars followed by Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
NATURE OF BEGGARS
Beggars can be juvenile, able bodied, diseased, old, feeble, or weak, disabled and intellectually deficient. Able bodied beggars can be casual, fake, habitual, or professional beggars. People engage in alms seeking because they are indolent to work, they see this as a lucrative business, forced to beg by a beggars gang, starvation, and homelessness, to feed one’s family, indulge in such an act in the name of religion/culture and denial of basic requirements because of their gender identity or due to their membership to a downtrodden or socially inferior group.
Beggary laws are the products of our colonial times. India lacks a clear-cut legal apparatus to deal with the problem of destitution and vagrancy.
In 2018, the then acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Hari Shankar in their ruling in Delhi High Court claimed that “People beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to. Begging is their last resort to subsistence.”
Due to the absence of a central act to deal with beggary, most of the states had derived their anti-beggary laws from the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. The act criminalizes begging and prescribes a period of 3 years detention period in beggary homes.
According to the Bombay prevention of begging act 1959, Begging refers to obtaining materials like cloth, money, or any articles in a public place through soliciting or by taking alms regardless of whether the act is done under the guise of singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing, or offering any article for sale. It refers to strolling in private spots to obtain alms or solicitation. It involves disclosing any physical ailment such as sore, injury, deformity, diseases whether of a human being or animal with the sole intention to acquire alms. The definition also includes a person who is visibly seen to have no means of subsistence and is wandering or staying in a public place is doing so with an intent to receive alms or doing so for solicitation. Finally, begging as per the act refers to allowing oneself to use him/her/they as an exhibit for the object of soliciting or receiving alms. The court during its ruling will take into consideration the age and character of the beggar, the conditions under which the beggar was living and reports of the probation officer.
The act criminalizes begging and prescribes a jail period of 1-3 years. People found begging more than once will be imprisoned for a period of 10 years. A person who has no means to develop his/her/their skills and has no other means of subsistence will automatically go back to what he/she/they were doing before, which in this case is begging. Thereby, punishing beggars is a futile exercise.
LOOPHOLES IN THE LAW
The law allows anti-begging squads to arrest anyone who seems to be homeless and impoverished. In many cases differently abled, migrants, street performers and nomadic communities like Gujjars and Bakarwals were mistaken to be beggars and have been arrested. The government beggar homes lack proper infrastructure and facilities. Thereby, definition of beggary under the 1959 act violates freedom of speech and movement. Moreover, Punishing the act of beggary makes it seem like poverty is an individual’s fault and thereby is a violation of human dignity and right to life. Thereby, instances of punitive constitutionalism needs to end to uphold individual rights.
Due to social stigma towards the transgender community, they take to begging. Thereby, it is essential that gender sensitisation programs be conducted, ample measures be taken to provide opportunities to develop their skills and their basic requirements also needs to be fulfilled. Human trafficking and forced child solicitation and begging is an issue closely linked to the sphere of begging and needs to be addressed quickly.
Only legislative measures have been taken to prevent scrounging while the utmost requirement is enhancing the productive capacity of beggars by providing them with medical facilities, education, housing, and other basic needs until they are able to fend for themselves.
Not all beggars are homeless, they have their own community and place to live. Moreover, alms giving is rampant as it is seen as holy and is encouraged by many religions and cultures. Thereby, as long as social attitudes remain stagnant, this problem will remain forever.
Undoubtedly, these laws are not directed towards enhancing the life conditions of beggars rather are aimed at eradicating public nuisance and ensuring a peaceful environment for tourists. It is unfortunate that begging is seen as a disgrace and burden on the government. The laws lack sensitivity in dealing with supplicating. It is time the state realises that the problem of begging is deep and delicate and needs to be dealt with diligence rather than sheer callousness.