Decriminalising begging a welcome step, but India needs shelter homes, fresh debate on persons in destitution bill

In 1908, Mahatma Gandhi translated John Ruskin's Unto this Last into Gujarati into a book titled Sarvodaya, which by definition means the development of all. Gandhi's Sarvodaya expounded on the home-grown concept of Antyodaya, which speaks of uplifting the weakest, as envisioned by Bharatiya Jana Sangh co-founder Deen Dayal Upadhyay.

The Indian Constitution's treatment of begging as a crime has failed both Gandhi's vision and Upadhyay's dream, not in one but in as many as 20 states and two Union Territories.

On Wednesday, the Delhi High Court decriminalised begging. A bench of acting chief justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar observed that with this decision, prosecutions under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, would be liable to be struck down.

Decriminalising begging a welcome step, but India needs shelter homes, fresh debate on persons in destitution bill

An Indian man begs on the side of the road in Hyderabad. AFP

The verdict defines begging as the last resort to subsistence. In no way does it set a precedent, and neither does it empathise with the weaker sections of society. In all its earnestness, it acknowledges that the practice of begging is an end, not a means, for those the state failed to support with basic economic aid and social security.

"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," read the court order.

The verdict is a result of public interest litigations by social activists Harsh Mander and Karnika Sawhney, who had sought to have begging decriminalised in the capital, arguing that poverty can never be a crime.

The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which extended to Delhi, was a colonial act and hence, suppressive in nature. It defined a beggar as someone "with no visible means of subsistence" and a person who wanders about or remains in a public place in a condition they likely live in because they indulge in soliciting or receiving alms.

The vulnerability before the law stretches over even to the elderly and differently-abled. For the over 17 lakh senior citizens in Delhi, there are only two state-funded old age homes, that too in the remote fringes of the national capital — in Bindapur and Lampur. This goes against the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, which does not describe mental illness as a crime and assures free, quality treatment for the homeless.

Activist Harsh Mander, one of the petitioners in the case, spoke to Firstpost about the long struggle of going from bench to bench and being fed the same elaborate reasons India uses to justify its indifference towards begging, such as the one that beggars are lazy and undeserving of the State's limited financial resources.

"Begging laws are among the most unjust laws. Begging is also defined widely in the Acts — it includes street performing and hawking, which brings a lot of people under the gamut of a punitive law," said Mander, suggesting the introduction of a pan-India anti-destitution law.

"In 2015, the Government of India was putting in place a social protection framework, but the draft bill was randomly dropped, which the government directly conveyed to the court," he said. This draft defined homeless persons, beggars, people with physical and mental disabilities, the old and infirm and other such persons who live in a state of poverty and abandonment.

About three years ago, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had constituted a committee to draft an alternative law. One of the recommendations in its draft bill was to set up an outreach and mobilisation unit for the State to identify the destitute. It defined a rehabilitation centre as "any institution or non-custodial home established and maintained by the state government, voluntary organisations, or any other implementing agencies, which shall be certified/registered in such a manner as prescribed by the state government to provide protection, care, vocational training/skill development and other necessary rehabilitative services to the destitutes". Among the implementing agencies mentioned were referral units to assess the needs and requirements of the poor and link them to appropriate services and counselling units.

The draft acknowledged destitutes as people incapable of living with dignity without the support of the State. "A few beggar homes in India are worse than jails. I visited beggar homes in Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad," Mander said in opposition to any involuntary detention of people for being destitute or begging.

Professor Mohammed Tarique — the director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' Field Action Project Koshish and member of the committee that prepared the bill — told Firstpost that the 14 beggar homes in Maharashtra in Nagpur, Pune and Mumbai offer a stipend of Rs 5 a month. He questioned asked how these establishments thought people could be rehabilitated with an amount this pitiable.

Koshish works as a knowledge partner with the Bihar government's Mukhyamantri Bhikshavriti Nivaran Yojana, which promises not just care and protection but also "development and socio-economic and cultural empowerment". "The Bihar government has done commendable work. It has shunned its anti-begging law and set up rehab centres in 14 districts (including Gaya, Nalanda, Darbhanga and Bhagalpur), where they provide vocational training in industrial tailoring, housekeeping and gate-keeping," the professor said, adding that Rajasthan had also repealed its anti-begging law and was going to pilot a scheme for a community-based, non-punitive system to be launched in Jaipur and Udaipur.

A homeless man sleeps on a road divider in Delhi. AFP

A homeless man sleeps on a road divider in Delhi. AFP

Heenu Singh is the Delhi head of the Childline India Foundation. In 1996, Childline had started the country's first toll-free helpline for street children in distress. Singh stressed on the need for new operating practices because there are entire families involved. "It's about the reformation of an entire family. The Goa, Daman and Diu Prevention of Begging Act, 1972, talks of family rehabilitation and other states need to attune their imaginations to this need too," she said.

In his 2017 budget speech, Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar had announced that his government will set up "a full-fledged rehabilitation centre for beggars and destitutes". He had said that despite the Goa, Daman and Diu Prevention of Begging Act, 1972, the number of beggars was, in fact, rising by the day in the state. Parrikar had said that the government aimed to make Goa the country's first beggar-free state by establishing rehabilitation centres for the poor.

Rehabilitating entire families is a problem because even in shelter homes for the homeless, drug addiction and theft run rampant, Sheleen Mitra, the officer on special duty to Delhi minister for health Satyendar Jain, had earlier told Firstpost. Given the plethora of aspects of the problem, a special action force could help to identify specific problems and suggest immediate reform measures.

Another problem that must be factored in is of vocational training, which can improve people's employability. This runs the risk of attracting even those who are not homeless to beggar homes and further deepen the ambiguity. Earlier this year, Firstpost had reported on the need to repeal punitive begging laws, and sources in the Delhi government had said that the National Skill Development Commission has sanctioned 1,100 slots to train beggars in baking and cookery, mobile repairing and retail sales. The training was going to start at Sewa Kutir housing centre. "But if the building is no longer exclusive to the homeless, then the point of our efforts for a particular section of society will be lost," the source had said.

It has been seventy years since independence, and the Bengal Vagrancy Act still provides for detention of persons with leprosy. In states like Karnataka and Assam, begging acts exempt mendicants who seek alms to fulfil religious obligations. Repealing draconian laws is a welcome first step, but a nationwide law that acknowledges homelessness as a complicated social and economic reality is a simultaneous need.

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Updated Date: Aug 10, 2018 19:32:23 IST

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