Criminalising beggars instead of rehabilitating them

By Neeta Lal

A recent survey in Delhi revealed that many beggars are able-bodied and educated, forced into beggary by unemployment. The findings underscore the absence of a cohesive and humane national policy for beggars in India

If you thought penury, unemployment and disability were the only factors propelling people towards beggary, here's some news for you. A recent survey carried out by the social welfare department (Delhi government) and Delhi University's department of social work, reveals that the capital city's beggars, many of them 'educated and able-bodied', resort to begging to augment their professional incomes! Of over 5,000 beggars surveyed, four turned out to be post-graduates who were supplementing their monthly salaries by begging on weekends, six were graduates, and 796 had studied up to higher secondary level.

Conducted across a swathe of geographical regions, the survey shows that a beggar's earnings add up to between Rs 50 and Rs 500 a day, with most beggars opting to beg in the face of meagre earning capacity, poverty, infirmity, destitution, and age. Of those surveyed, 799 men and 1,541 women were able-bodied but continued to beg due to lack of employment opportunities. Many were found to be drug addicts, but they were not part of an organised gang or mafia. Unsurprisingly, most beggars were found outside temples and places of religious significance where alms are given more readily and more generously. The respondents also said they made more money on weekends.

While the survey throws some fresh light on the age-old occupation of begging, it also underscores the disquieting lack of a cohesive and humane national policy for beggars in India. Since 1961, Delhi has been administered by the antiquated Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which makes begging in public places a crime and a punishable offence. Clause (d) of the Act describes beggars as people "...having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner (as) makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms".

Under this Act, officials from the social welfare department (assisted by the police) conduct raids to randomly pick up beggars who are then tried in a special beggars' court and, if convicted, sent to a certified institution. Unfortunately, however, the Begging Act lumps together an assortment of people (street performers, mendicants, small vendors, pavement-dwellers and migrants) who might solicit alms indirectly, as 'beggars'.

The Act also suffers from other serious lacunae. Firstly, it addresses anyone who appears 'poor' and 'destitute'. Both definitions are nebulous and open to the vagaries of time and the whims of an inspector. Thus, a ragpicker or a migrant labourer -- who may never have begged in his/her life -- can be picked up at random and incarcerated in a beggars' home for a period up to three years at a stretch! Secondly, the nature of the Act itself is punitive, which makes the poor criminally responsible for their position.

India's beggary laws are undoubtedly a throwback to the centuries-old European vagrancy laws that overlook the crucial difference between official text and practical reality. In other words, rather than address the socio-economic angle of beggary, beggary laws criminalise it. "The aggressive anti-beggar legislation is aimed at wiping the desperately poor off the city's radar so that society can continue to neglect them without it pricking its collective conscience," says senior lawyer and human rights activist Rani Jethmalani.

In addition to this, the Traffic Police Notification (under the Motor Vehicles Act) provides for the imposition of a fine on motorists who give money to beggars. The Delhi Traffic Police has issued a direction to all motorists in the capital not to give alms to beggars at traffic lights, as this hinders traffic flow, sometimes even causing accidents. The fine for a first violation is Rs 150; the second time around it is Rs 300.

"The law prevents motorists and commuters from doling out alms to beggars at traffic intersections, which is ludicrous as it's unfeasible to stop them from doing so," asserts Jethmalani. Instead of enforcing such inane laws, Jethmalani advocates the need to set in motion public awareness campaigns and vocational training for beggars depending on their capacity. "Rather than giving alms, the public should be motivated to give aid to institutions which can empower and educate the beggars," she says.

Organised begging, which often involves maiming, is widely seen as being exploitative and coercive, but there is a startling lack of documented evidence on this. The Indian Penal Code (Section 363 A) deals with the kidnapping/maiming of a minor for purposes of begging. However, the police seem intriguingly unwilling to use this, preferring to book 'unwanted elements' like homeless people/drug addicts in their area under the Bombay Act, as their responsibility then stops with the arrest. Thus, the current institutionalised approach to beggars merely serves to punish destitute people without aiming to help or reform them. Driven to begging, these people -- often unemployed, aged people, people with physical disabilities or drug problems -- remain helpless.

Beggary laws also suffer from faulty implementation. The criteria employed by the social welfare department and the police to identify and pick up beggars are arbitrary and unfair. Mistakes abound and often those who look unkempt and miserable are rounded up despite their protests. In order to combat this legal apathy, a coalition comprising lawyers from the Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), a campaign for the homeless in Delhi, run by ActionAid, the Human Rights Law Network and students from the law department of the University of Delhi, was set up to provide legal help to aggrieved people.

In its efforts to make Delhi 'beggar-free', the social welfare department has been working towards rehabilitating them. The Delhi High Court too, some time ago, directed the department to clear Delhi of beggars/hawkers as they "obstruct the smooth flow of traffic". It advocated a rehabilitation plan for them in the wake of a public interest litigation (PIL) that described beggars as the "ugly face of the nation's capital" and as people who caused "road rage".

Under the Beggary Act, 12 statutory institutions -- 10 for male beggars and two for female beggars -- were constituted for the prevention of begging, the detention, training and employment of beggars, and the custody, trial and punishment of offenders under the law. "We've also made provisions for providing vocational training to beggars in these government-run homes," explains Dr Sneh Lata Tandon, Head of the Department of Social Work, Delhi University.

But despite such laudable -- albeit sporadic -- efforts to rehabilitate beggars, there's an urgent need to revamp beggars' homes too. Some years ago, the national media raised a storm when several beggars died of cholera at the Lampur beggar home, underscoring the horrific, near-Dickensian conditions that prevail in these homes. An inquiry was ordered into the matter and the committee's report highlighted the need for a review of the law. "These places are called 'homes', but the pathetic conditions which prevail in them are worse than those of third-rate jails where 'convicts' may be incarcerated for up to 10 years. It's the most sure-fire way of criminalising poverty in the country," says social activist Jaya Pradhan.

"The beggar homes feed and clothe their inmates and pay Rs 12 for an hour of constructive work," says an official from the social welfare department. "The physically challenged and those afflicted with leprosy find beggar homes a real refuge as they are the ones who suffer the most living on the streets." However, experts feel that such an approach is skewed because, according to official figures, the government spends approximately Rs 35,000 per head to maintain these homes. The money, experts say, could be better utilised to give beggars vocational training that can, in turn, empower them and assure them of employment.

"The first step towards preventing begging is to stop giving alms. But how can people expect any effective action when begging is such a lucrative means of livelihood, allowing a person to earn up to Rs 500 a day doing nothing," asks Supreme Court advocate Ashok Aggarwal of Social Jurists, a Delhi-based civil rights organisation.

A study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a Delhi-based research group, pegs a beggar's average earnings at around Rs 50 a day. According to this report, 90% of Delhi's beggar population are migrants from the BIMARU states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A study conducted by AAA India shows that nearly all of them were pushed to Delhi by abject poverty in their hometowns and villages. "With no sense of belonging to a place, no employment opportunities, and easy money for the asking, is it any surprise that we've not been able to eradicate beggary from the national landscape," Aggarwal asks.

So what really is the answer to the problem of beggary in India? The question, unfortunately, is a complex one. For starters, recognising and combating structural injustices in society and expanding livelihood options for the marginalised -- in a growth-driven and now shining trillion-dollar economy -- is a good idea. But simultaneously it is crucial to have an inclusive legal system that incorporates the welfare of the deprived/downtrodden in its charter.

The problem of beggary in India needs to be addressed cohesively, involving sustained, long-term and collective action. Political will, the efforts of local administrations, NGOs and the public will all need to come together to achieve this aim.

(Neeta Lal is an independent journalist based in Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2007