The Effectiveness of the Anti-Begging Laws in India

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The minute your car halts at a red light, a shabby woman with her weakling of a child walks to your car begging for money to feed her baby. Or, when you are travelling on a train, a poor blind man walks across the compartment singing miserably and asking for alms. Or, when you are right outside a restaurant a lad clad in ripped clothes begs you for food money. In a poverty and hunger stricken India, beggars are everywhere today.

Under Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, begging has been defined as the act of soliciting or receiving alms in public or private places by pretending to sing, dance, sell any article, or exhibiting any sore injury or wound, having no visible means of subsistence but begging or otherwise.

The definition is filled with ambiguities and other such inconsistencies making it very easy for the police to arrest even poor looking people. An anti-begging squad of the police is clearly instructed to bring in a “certain minimum” beggars daily. Since this law permits police to arrest without a warrant, they arrest suspected beggars from places like railway stations, bus terminuses, temples and mosques, many of whom are innocent. If any questions are asked, they are subjected to police brutality and harassment.

Once apprehended, beggars are held in a reception centre, an institution devised to temporarily detain such beggars before they are presented in court. On reaching such a centre, families are separated – men, women, and children are kept in different rooms. They are later frisked for any money or personal belongings which are taken away and a receipt is given to the inmate – not for the entire amount but for the remainder of what the constable helps himself to.

A report prepared by the University of Pune on begging in Delhi describes perfectly how wretched and unhygienic these centres are: the sick and the healthy are allotted adjoining rooms. The doctor is so frightened of the unwell inmates that he refuses to touch them. Blankets, durries and pillows are never cleaned, disinfected or replaced. An entire block of 150 persons is allowed only one cake of Carbolic soap and two faucets of water. Tooth-paste is distributed a night before court appearances which take place only once a week. If it is distributed on any other day, the inmates may safely assume that a magistrate shall visit the next day.

The latrine block has only six seats and clogs quickly as only one janitor, responsible for cleaning six such blocks, is incapable of keeping them reasonably clean. The food here is always uncooked and inadequate – peons and clerks swoop away meals cooked for inmates and drink countless cups of tea throughout the day. Sleeping wards, on the other hand, despite being large enough for 90 persons, are over occupied and have only one small door and two small windows.

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In court, magistrates are least bothered about whether an accused was arrested for begging on reasonable grounds or not. They are only concerned about disposing these cases at the quickest. Thus, these accused are often compelled to plead guilty expecting that they will be released on a bond of abstinence from begging.

In case an accused is convicted of begging, he may serve anytime between 1 and 10 years in a beggars’ home. These homes are not any better than the reception centres. Convicted beggars are to be educated and trained in vocational courses ranging from agriculture to baking, to enable them to lead dignified lives. They are instead, forced to scrub toilets or work in the kitchen.

Despite spending over Rs. 26 crores on five such homes in Delhi, they are in a terrible condition. One of these has been converted into a detention centre, three others are lying empty and the only operational home has only 13 inmates.

Begging in India has grown to such an extent that organised begging mafia now dominate Indian cities. Persons looking destitute stricken are trained and made to beg with the sole intention of earning a livelihood. A day’s gross collection is then divided, with the leader taking away the largest share.

Instead of tracking down such mafia, the police detain persons who are innocent. A recent revelation gave that majority of the inmates at a beggar’s home in Mumbai are not even poor. They are just elderly suffering from mental illnesses, cancer caught by the police while walking on roads. Meanwhile, their families are frantically looking for them who have been missing for a while now.

To cease such injustice, the Ministry of Social Justice had proposed The Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016 – a draft that sought to repeal the archaic Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. Its provisions were clearer and lighter, aimed to favour the poor and to end begging rackets.

The government, however, chose to drop the model bill – a move condemned by Delhi High Court’s Chief Justice, Gita Mittal. Many pleas were filed in courts across the country seeking fundamental and human rights for beggars in and outside beggars’ home. Proper food and medical care were also sought in reception centres and beggars’ homes. But since the government is responsible for citizens living below the poverty line, there is only so much that can be done.

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