Maharashtra’s draconian law which penalised people for being poor and destitute may soon be abolished. In a move which will humanise the states’ approach to destitute and beggars, the Central government has brought a draft law to be implemented by all state governments that will give rights to destitute to demand help from the states. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 was first drafted for Maharashtra and later copied by most states. Under the present act, anyone having no visible means of subsistence and found wandering about in a public space is deemed as 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. If convicted by a court, a person can spend between one to 10 years in jail. Strangely, unlike most other laws under the begging act, the court can also order the detention of all those who it thinks are dependent on the beggar.
In an aim to do away with this law, the central ministry of social justice and empowerment earlier this month has finalised a draft bill called the “Persons in Destitution (Protection Care and Intervention)” Model Bill, 2016. It has presently sought suggestions and objections from the public for the bill till August 29. The new law once it gets implemented will help do away the draconian beggary act which allows the police to arrest any destitute found wandering on the road by deeming him as a beggar.
Rather than rehabilitating destitute, it criminalises the poor and those suffering from mental ailments. If convicted under the old law, a person can spend anything between one to 10 years in a beggars’ home. The new law does not criminalise destitute but crack down on those who run organised beggary syndicates. The draft law which claims to “provide protection, support training and other services to all persons in destitution” refers to destitution as a state of poverty or abandonment, arising from economic or social deprivation, including age and infirmity, homelessness, disability and sustained unemployment, and which requires support for the person to move out of it.
Persons in destitution, include homeless persons, persons in begging, persons with physical and mental disabilities, the old and infirm, and other such persons who are above 18 years of age and in a state of poverty or abandonment arising from economic or social deprivations and sustained unemployment. The new law calls for setting up of outreach or mobilisation units at each district which will identify and provide assistance to those who fit into the category of a destitute. The units will not only create awareness in people about the services available to them but will also provide assistance in procuring legal documents. The law also calls for setting up of rehabilitation centres in each district to provide care and rehabilitate those who have voluntarily sought help.
It also calls for setting up of referral units for those destitute who do not wish to stay in rehabilitation homes. These units will identify the need of the person in destitution and refer him/her to agencies which provide medical service or vocational training. According to the census, there are only 3.7 lakh beggars and vagrants in the country and their number has been on the decline with a 41 per cent reduction since 2001 when the number of beggars was pegged at 6.3 lakh.
Activists have for long been complaining that the numbers are severely under-reported and the states till now had no clear cut policy or will in identifying or helping the destitute. The activists have been fighting for the past decade to ensure that the state takes a more humane approach towards the destitute. “We cant have laws which penalise people for being poor. The existing laws crack down on those who are powerless and face discrimination and stigmatised. We need a law which respects the dignity of the destitute and acknowledges their potential,” Mohammed Tarique, coordinator of Koshish, an organisation which works on homelessness and destitution said.