They are perhaps the most deprived section of our growing population, but they also bear the stigma of being a burden on the society we live in. What’s most unfortunate is that beggars face the ignominy of being deemed criminals under a 1959 legislation, the Bombay (Prevention of Begging) Act, which today is blamed by many for their further marginalisation. Zeeshan Shaikh takes a close look at the provisions of this Act and examines how they can be improved.
Kashibai Solanke, a resident of Panvel, spends most of her day at Kharghar station seeking alms. Septuagenarian Solanke is one of the many Indians who have fallen out of family structures or failed to build social support systems due to their age, disabilities or illness and have been forced to stretch out their arms seeking alms for their survival. Solanke took to begging to fend for herself after moving out of the house of her alcoholic and abusive son. “At my age, no one is going to give me work. I need to do this to ensure that I survive,” says Solanke, who claims to have led a normal middle class lifestyle in her younger days.
Most of these destitutes – who could be mentally ill, disabled, aged, infirm and those abandoned by their families who have been forced by circumstances to turn to begging – and street performers in the country live in constant fear of being arrested without warrant and spending three to 10 years in jail along with their dependents for the act of begging on streets.
The 2011 Census of India just counted 2,275 beggars in Mumbai, the metropolis which is home to over 1.24 crore people. This improbable figure is severely under-reported and, as many believe, is reflective of the state’s behaviour which wants to hide or brush aside the most helpless and voiceless segment of our society. There has been increasing demands that the state review its beggary prevention legislation which, rather than being rehabilitative in nature, penalises and criminalises the poor.
THE BOMBAY (PREVENTION OF BEGGING) ACT, 1959
As all of India’s laws, the country’s anti-beggary legislation is based on an archaic British law against vagrants. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959 was first drafted for the state and later copied by most of the states in the country.
Under the present Act, anyone having no visible means of subsistence and found wandering about in a public space is deemed a beggar. All those who solicit alms in public place under any pretence, including singing, dancing, fortune-telling or street-performing, are also deemed as beggars.
The present Act gives discretionary powers to the police who can pick up anyone on a hunch that the individual is a beggar …continued »