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 or a destitute with no means of fending for himself. Mumbai acts like a beacon for migrants who come from far and wide to find work on its streets. Many of them do odd jobs and sleep on the street during the night. However, many of them face the threat of being rounded up as beggars by the Beggar Squad of the Mumbai police if it thinks they look like a destitute.
The individual is subsequently presented before the Metropolitan Magistrate Court in Kurla which handles cases pertaining to beggars. The court can make a summary inquiry and allow the individual to leave if it is satisfied he is not a beggar. For detailed deliberations, the court can send an individual on a remand of up to 14 days to a beggars’ home while the inquiry is conducted. In Mumbai, the court sends those who are remanded to the Beggars’ Home in Chembur.
The probation officer subsequently undertakes an inquiry and submits his report to the court. If the reports says that the individual is a beggar, the person is then convicted by the court and sent to a beggars’ home for one to three years. Strangely, unlike most other laws, the court can also order the detention of all those who it thinks are dependent on the beggar under the Act.
There are presently 13 beggars’ homes in the state with the combined capacity of holding close to 5,000 detainees. An individual picked up in Mumbai can be sent to any of these centres. Under the law, these homes need to include provisions for teaching of agricultural, industrial and other vocational trades. However, in most of these homes, the detained individuals are forced to work on the agricultural field. There have been complaints of a spike in the beggars being picked up during the sowing season. For all their toil, the detained individuals are said to be paid Rs 5 per day.
A detainee is subsequently released after his term is completed. However, if the detainee is picked up for a second time for the same crime, he can be sent back to prison for a period of as high as 10 years.
OPPOSITION TO THE BEGGING LAW
Activists opposing the Bombay (Prevention of Begging) Act, 1959, claim it has led to the insensitive treatment of those who are ostensibly poor and denies them their rights. It is also blamed for failing to bring such persons out of destitution and resulting in further marginalisation of the destitute.
“The law is being used as a means to punish all those who are poor and on the streets. Putting people behind bars and criminalising them for being on the streets is no solution,” Tarique Mohammad Qureshi, coordinator of Koshish, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ field action project on homelessness and destitution, says.
Activists point to the fact that under the beggary law, age-old occupations like that of snake-charmers, madari, street performance and fortune-telling have also been criminalised while the institutions for capacity building of those detained have either withered away or have become non-functional.
The fundamental opposition to the law is based on the premise that it does not have any provision of the government reaching out to help a “person- in-need” without arresting that person and terming him a criminal only because he is a destitute.
The prolonged detention of these already vulnerable people leads to the complete breakdown of the already delicate social security blanket for them, activists claim, that many of the people who are picked up are often workers who lose their job once they are detained.
“I used to work in a bakery at Nagpada and sleep on the road. One day, the police picked me up and said I was a beggar. I was sent to a beggars’ home but released a week later at the intervention of my friends. However, when I came back, my employer refused to take me back,” Mohammed Wahid, a resident of Bihar who now works as a “Hamaal” at the Byculla fruit market, says.
Activists say their detention also drastically affects their families as well those who are dependent on their earnings. The stigma of going to jail also brands them as criminals, which attracts social ridicule and forces many to even leave the city.
“With our society moving towards being more individual-centric and lesser family-centric, over the years one can observe a breakdown of support systems, traditional values of respect and responsibility towards the aged and the disabled. This has also increased destitution and the aged are reduced to the streets. Limited access and relevance of schemes and government support, lack of relevant livelihood skills needed for emerging markets are also reasons for destitution and beggary,” a TISS report on begging says.
Popular perception about begging remains that for many, it is the preferred way of making easy money. However, frequent studies conducted by NGOs show many who do beg are forced to do so because of circumstances.
The state government also runs various schemes for helping the destitute, but it is obvious by the number of beggars on the streets that they are not getting benefits of such schemes. Activists claim that if the state is honest in addressing the concerns of the poor, rehabilitation of the destitute is possible.
“There can be some instances where people beg even when they can work, but largely they are people who need the support of the state. There is a need for the state to be more sensitive to their plight and support their rehabilitation,” Qureshi says.
The TISS report also points out that an enforced stay in a beggars’ home does not deter many from returning to begging again.
Interestingly, the Maharashtra government as well as the central government have acknowledged that there is a problem with the law and has set up committees to look into how this Act can be redrafted. However, there has been no movement on this front.
CHANGES THAT ACTIVISTS PROPOSE
Activists like Qureshi have, at the instance of the government, worked out draft laws which have been presented to the state as well as central government. The crux of the Act is to provide training, care and support to persons in destitution rather then penalising them for their condition.
The draft Bill, called the Persons in Destitution (Training, Support and Other Services) Bill, was formulated in 2013 and submitted to the Maharashtra government. The Bill calls for recognising that destitution is a situation of extreme vulnerability and says there is a constitutional obligation to protect those in destitution and seek to address the vulnerabilities that arise from it.
“The persons experiencing destitution live in a vicious cycle of poverty, powerlessness, stigmatisation, discrimination, exclusion and material deprivation, all of which mutually reinforce each other,” the draft Bill states. It defines “persons in destitution” as homeless persons, persons with addictions, the differently abled, persons with mental disabilities, the old and infirm, transgender and other such persons who are in a state of poverty or abandonment.
The Bill calls for the setting up of outreach and mobilisation Committees, which should conduct surveys for identifying persons in destitution, create awareness among them about the services available for their benefits and give them the option and help to avail of the same. It also calls for setting up centres for the care, protection and vocational training of persons in destitution who voluntarily seek the same. These centres should have qualified resident doctors, recreation and other facilities. It also calls for the setting up of referral committees which will identify the needs of persons in destitution and refer them to the respective institutions according to their requirement, including providing medical services, vocational training, shelter and employment opportunities.
The Bill also speaks about the state setting up counselling committees, which will engage in extended interactions with persons in destitution to assist them in opting for specific vocational training as per their preferences. Any person can approach any of these centres or committees established for support and assistance.
The draft Bill also states that every request for such support and assistance shall be registered and referred to the outreach and mobilisation committee for appropriate measures.
Activists claim that most of the existing systems used by the state for handling beggars can be used in the new Act as well. The state, however, has made no move in this direction.
Principal secretary of Women and Child Development department, Ujjwal Uke, refused to comment.
An official of the same department, under whose purview these institutions come, said, “It is a law that definitely needs amendment. However, it remains low on the state priority as of now.”