Last week, Delhi High Court decriminalised beggary by striking down, as unconstitutional, certain sections of the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959, as extended to Delhi. There being no central Act on beggary, many states and Union Territories have used the Bombay Act as the basis for their own laws. The order, on a petition by Harsh Mander and Karnika Sawhney, is the first in the country to strike down provisions of the 1959 Act.
Among the 25 provisions struck down are those permitting the arrest, without a warrant, any person found begging, taking the person to court, conducting a summary inquiry and detaining the person for up to 10 years. “People beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to… 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,” ruled the Bench of Delhi Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar.
The Act was formulated with the objective of keeping the streets of then Bombay clear of the destitute, leprosy patients or the mentally ill so they could be sent into institutions. Section 10 (struck down) gives a chief commissioner powers to order the immediate, indefinite detention of any person detained in a certified institution who is considered “blind, a cripple or otherwise incurably helpless”.
What does not change
The court has not struck down provisions that do not treat beggary per se as an offence, including Section 11, which deals with penalty for employing or causing persons to beg. This addresses forced begging or “begging rackets”, which are used to justify retaining the Act. Activists advocating repeal of the Act, however, say that these can be dealt with existing provisions in the Indian Penal Code.
The Centre made an attempt at repealing the Act through the Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016, with provisions including doing away with the Beggary Act and proposing rehabilitation centres for the destitute in each district. Some provisions allowed detention. Discussion on the Bill was halted in 2016.
Campaign against the law
Mohammed Tarique, director of Koshish, the field action project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says the Act violates the fundamental rights of the citizen. He calls for intervention in states such as Maharashtra, where the Census categorises 24,307 persons as “beggars” but where activists believe many more come under the purview of the Act. “There are 14 homes in the state for detention of beggars. Many of these homes remain without superintendents, probation officers or doctors. A few months ago, many were detained in Nashik and sentenced to one year imprisonment without proper trial showing disregard even to the existing law,” Tarique said.
While repealing the Act would require legislative and judicial intervention, Tarique suggests immediate alternative steps such as the Bihar government’s Mukhyamantri Bhikshavriti Nivaran Yojana, where Koshish is a knowledge partner. Instead of detaining persons under the Act, open homes were set up and community outreach for destitute persons was put in place. Now, rehabilitation centres have been set up, with facilities for treatment, family reintegration and vocational training.