Begging in India: Various Issues and Legal Recourses

In August 2018, Delhi High Court decriminalized beggary by striking down some sections of the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959, as extended to Delhi.

Background

Begging is a crime in twenty states and two union territories of India. It is treated as cognizable and non-bailable offense. Presently, there is not a single uniform law on begging & destitution and several states have adopted the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959.

Some stats

India has 4,13,670 beggars in 2015 (Census 2011). West Bengal tops the list with 81,000 beggars. Some studies points out that 99% men and 97% women resort to beggary. This number fell 41% since the last Census of 2001, which noted the number of beggars at 6.3 lakh.

How Beggary causes problems?

Beggary poses huge economic Burden. It leads to Drug Abuse. The Profit from begging prompts traffickers to kidnap children to do begging in other states. Begging rackets is also an organized Crime in India. Beggary is also one of the major causes of child Related Crimes. Beggars turned to prostitution.

What are the problems faced by beggars?

They face negative attitude in the society since they are viewed as poor, lazy and lives on the sympathy of others. They are perceived as drug trafficker and child lifter etc. It is a common belief that, beggars are obstacle to tourism and a scar on highly developed cities. In rural areas they are treated as untouchables.

Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959

  • It seeks to remove beggars from their present illegal profession so that they may be detained, skilled and subsequently employed elsewhere.
  • The act criminalizes begging and they may be arrested without warrant.
  • They can be sentenced to imprisonment without trial or transferred to shelter homes/certified institutions.
  • The jail term for beggary ranges from 3-10 years.
  • Court may command detention of persons completely dependent on beggar person.
  • The act imposes penalty for employing or making persons to beg or using them for purposes of begging
  • There is also a provision for the teaching of agricultural, industrial and other skills, and for general education and medical care of the inmates of the Receiving Institutions
  • Further, every person held in certified institutions “shall at any time permit his finger prints to be taken”.
  • Under the Act, if any beggar held in a Certified Institution is found to be of mentally ill or leper, s/he can be ordered to be transferred to a mental hospital or leper asylum under the provisions of the Indian Lunacy Act, 1912 and of the Lepers Act, 1898.

What are the problems with Act?

  • Vague definition of begging as there is no distinction between Beggars and Homeless.
  • Harsh punishment for beggar without regard to proper rehabilitation measures.
  • It gives arbitrary powers to the police for arresting a beggar.
  • Every beggar or juvenile has a fundamental right to live under Article 21 of the Constitution. It is state’s responsibility to arrange an alternative methods of earning for them.
  • It also prohibits people who make living through singing, dancing etc.
  • The provisions are violate the right of children and reverses the protective provision of juvenile Justice Act. Juvenile justice act recognizes child beggars as “children in need of care and protection” and provides for provisions regarding their rehabilitation and re-integration in the society.
  • There is no rule with respect to right to get training and education.
  • The Act gives certified institutions complete power over inmates, such as the power of punishment, and the power to get “manual work” from them.

The person in destitution (protection, care and rehabilitation) model bill, 2016

  • It encompass the rights of all destitute – homeless, beggars, persons with mental and physical disabilities, old and the infirm – who are above the age of eighteen.
  • It decriminalized beggary except for repeat offences.
  • It also proposes to set up distinct rehabilitation centers for women and differently abled destitute.
  • It makes employing a child for begging a crime punishable under the Juvenile Justice Act and the Indian Penal Code.
  • States need to set up rehabilitation centers.
  • Provisions for vocational training or skill development.
  • It also proposes to establish a monitoring and advisory board to organise implementation of the schemes and suggest the government on matters with respect to care, protection, welfare and rehabilitation of destitute
  • But this draft proposal is currently dropped by the government.

Supreme  Verdicts

In Ram Lakhan v State case, the Supreme Court has critically evaluated every circumstance of a beggar from legal, social and ethical perspective

However, on contrary to Bombay act 1959, the verdict has categorised beggars into 4 groups viz; –

  1. Lazy persons who doesn’t want to work
  2. Addict to alcoholic or drug
  3. Forced by a ring leader of a beggary “gang”
  4. Starving, helpless and hopeless

The verdict says that people falling under third and fourth category are doing the begging under a need and hence they should not be convicted for the begging which they are not performing voluntarily. Therefore, 1959 Act provisions is contrary to the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression (Art 19).

Delhi HC judgment

  • Delhi High Court in August 2018 struck down certain sections of the Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act, 1959, as extended to Delhi thereby decriminalized beggary. It is first such order to strike down the 1959 Act.
  • Court held that the 1959 Act violated Article 14 (equality before law) and Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution.
  • It also observed that under article 21 it is the responsibility of states to give quality life to its citizen. Hence, State cannot punish people who are begging due to poverty.
  • The Court also struck down various other provisions including those permitting the arrest without a warrant. But it hasn’t struck down the provision seeks to address forced begging or “begging rackets”.
  • This judgment is hailed by critics as it will undo the injustice made to the beggars and consider all persons and communities as equal citizen.

Way ahead

  • There is a need for separate law that decriminalize beggary and that respects the dignity of the destitute rather than penalizing them for being poor.
  • The government should also come up with an effective mechanism for identification and rehabilitation of beggars.
  • After the rehabilitation, beggars shouldn’t be left alone. There should be a follow up action to assist them in facing any challenges while integrating with the mainstream society.
  • Police should undertake special operations to capture begging rackets.

The government should also engage various stakeholders like NGOs working with street children, traffic policemen etc. to eliminate beggary particularly child beggary.

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