The Delhi High Court Wednesday struck down the legal provision criminalising begging in the capital, and observed that “people beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to”.
“Begging is their last resort to subsistence; they have no other means to survive,” a bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar said, declaring 25 sections of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, which have been extended to Delhi, as “unconstitutional”.
The court added that the state is at liberty to bring in an alternative legislation to curb rackets of forced begging, after undertaking an empirical examination on the sociological and economic aspects of the matter.
The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 functions as the derivative figure for all state anti-begging laws. Several beggars have been thrown into jail in the capital under the law.
The HC held that “begging is a symptom of a disease, of the fact that the person has fallen through the socially created net. The government has the mandate to provide social security for everyone, to ensure that all citizens have basic facilities, and the presence of beggars is evidence that the state has not managed to provide these to all its citizens”.
“Criminalising begging violates the most fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. People in this stratum do not have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter and health, and in addition, criminalising them denies them the basic fundamental right to communicate and seek to deal with their plight,” the bench said.
The court’s order came on PILs by social activist Harsh Mander; Karnika Sawhney, who had sought decriminalisation of begging in the capital; and a beggar. The PILs had argued that poverty can never be a crime. “If a person is destitute and begs for a living, such a person cannot be treated as a criminal. He cannot be arrested or sentenced,” the plea said.
The pleas also challenged provisions of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. The Central government had said it cannot decriminalise begging and there were sufficient checks and balances in the Act.
The HC, however, ruled that the state simply cannot fail to do its duty to provide a decent life to its citizens and add insult to injury by arresting, detaining and, imprisoning such persons, who beg for bare survival, which is even below sustenance.
“A person who is compelled to beg cannot be faulted for such actions in these circumstances,” it said and concluded that “the inevitable sequitur to our decision would be that all prosecutions, under the Act against persons alleged to have committed the offence of begging, would be liable to be struck down”.
“The power to do so would, however, appropriately vest in the courts seized of such prosecutions, and we, therefore, limit ourselves to observing that the fate of such prosecutions, if any, would have to abide by the present judgment, and our observations and findings contained herein,” it added.
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