Begging on Indian streets still remain a ‘criminal’ act to be punished by imprisonment and fine   

Two years after the Delhi High Court decriminalised begging, neither the Centre nor the states have shown any inclination to abolish the law and stop harassment of the poor

Begging on Indian streets still remain a ‘criminal’ act to be punished by imprisonment and fine   

Amitabh Srivastava

Two reports related to begging by Indians surfaced this month. First Indian Railways indicated that it was planning to drop the penal provision from the Railway Act, which allows Railway Police to arrest beggars under the Act with the punishment extending to a year’s imprisonment or a fine of Rs 2000 or with both.

The other report emanated from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, where 450 Indians were found begging on the street and were detained. Video clips showed some of them cry and complain bitterly. Thrown out of work following the pandemic, an Indian worker could be heard saying, “We have seen workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka being helped by their diplomatic missions and sent back to their respective countries. But we are stuck here.”

While there is no central law prohibiting begging, at least 22 states including Delhi have rules against begging in public. They allow police to arrest beggars and send them to prison or detention centres. In some states beggars are rounded up and, paradoxically, sent out to work without compensation at construction sites of the privileged. The rule has been used to harass the poor. Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, actually prescribes a penalty of detention between three and ten years.

The destitutes and the homeless, members of nomadic communities, street performers and migrant workers, are routinely harassed and are forced to pay up if they don’t want to be arrested and detained.

After a long fight led by Harsh Mander and argued by Colin Gonsalves in 2017, Delhi High Court had decriminalized the act of beggary. “People beg on streets not because they wish to but because they are left with no other option,” the court had observed before adding, “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 persons who beg in search of essentials for bare survival.”

The order followed a long drawn legal battle fought by bureaucrat-turned activist Harsh Mander and activist lawyer Colin Gonsalves. “The law against begging is one of the single most oppressive laws against poor and destitute people in a country that has no social protection net,” argued Mander.

The central government had then told the Delhi High Court that it would bring forth a Bill to decrimi nalise beggary aimed at rehabilitating them. However, since then the Centre has gone back on its promise and informed the High Court that it had no proposal to decriminalise begging.

The Centre’s standing counsel Monika Arora and advocate Harsh Ahuja said, “We are not decriminalising it (begging). The proposal is dropped. The central government has no Act on begging. The states are empowered to do so on their own.” In other words, the Centre has washed its hands off and left it to the states to deal with the vast number of people begging on streets.

Delhi alone has around 50,000 homeless officially, (it could be three times that number) who could be put behind bars by high-handed policemen wherever a major crime takes place or when there is a visiting VIP in town. Under the law, begging is defined as:

Soliciting or receiving money, clothes or other things in a public place whether or not by singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing or offering any article for sale, or Entering private premises for the purpose of soliciting or receiving money, clothes or other things.

Exposing or exhibiting, with the object of obtaining or extorting money, clothes or other things any sore, wound injury, deformity etc.

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 money, clothes or other things.

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