There are many ways that the law in India empowers authorities to lock up — and lock away — our most vulnerable people. Most jails are packed with impoverished and socially disadvantaged people, held for prolonged periods without conviction, frequently for petty offences. Children without adult care and protection are housed sometimes for their entire childhood in jail-like State-run juvenile homes. Girls and women deemed by the state or judicial authorities to be ‘in moral danger’, such as those rescued from sex work, are incarcerated in custodial women’s homes. They are often confined all day in small spaces with no opportunities for recreation and privacy.
However, probably the most anti-poor laws in our statute books are beggary laws. It was around 1920 that legislation was enacted to prevent begging, and the spirit and many provisions of this colonial law are retained in the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which has been extended to 18 states including Delhi.
The definition of begging includes “having no visible means of subsistence”. It criminalises destitution. Since many beggars suffer from leprosy and mental illness, it implicitly criminalises these ailments as well. Traditional artists, “singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale” are also deemed as offences under this Act.
Any police officer is authorised to arrest without a warrant any person who is found begging under this wide definition. It is this draconian power that is used routinely by the police to reduce all homeless people to a continuous state of fear and insecurity for the mere fact that they lack “visible means of subsistence” and for this ‘crime’ they can be beaten, abused, chased, rounded up or arrested. All who interact closely with homeless people in any part of the country will testify that the police force tends to use these powers against these soft targets routinely with excess and brutality.
I recall the utterly distraught faces of elderly women begging in Hanuman Mandir, New Delhi, because the tiny grimy bundles containing all their worldly belongings had been set on fire for no reason by a raiding police team.
On the basis of summary and usually completely arbitrary and whimsical trials by disgruntled magistrates, a person found to be a beggar might be detained for a period not less than one year, but which may extend even to three years. Beggars’ homes are abysmally worse in public services than even jails, because of the powerlessness and stigma of their hapless residents. They get watery food and are confined often for 24 hours in dormitories that reek with the smell of excreta and cramped unwashed human bodies. There are no recreational or rehabilitative services, and many die lonely deaths within the confines of these institutions. Many have no families to visit them, others are too poor, and yet others are ashamed to let their families know that they are incarcerated for beggary.
Sixty-year-old Abdul came to Delhi from his home in Assam searching for his wandering mentally ill son but was rounded up and sentenced for three years on the charge of beggary. He is yet to inform his family about his incarceration. “If it was jail, I would tell them, but now they may actually believe that I was begging. I would not be able to bear that,” he says.
In Chennai, we found that the government spends Rs 36 lakh annually to confine 116 alleged beggars in sub-human conditions. Eight-six per cent of the total amount is spent on staff salaries. It spends Rs 27,000 per inmate annually, or nearly Rs 1 lakh on three years of their confinement. It does not find it fit to spend a fraction of this amount on the rehabilitation and social security of these people.
A bench of the Delhi High Court on February 7, 2007, directed the Delhi government to clear the streets of the capital of beggars and confine them in beggars’ homes. This ruling was given after a PIL filed by the New Delhi Bar Association alleged harassment and threats to their lives by “lepers and beggars” who “try to extort money” and “keep on knocking on car windows” with threats of “dire consequences” in case money is not given. It repeatedly refers to a particularly diabolical “leper in a blue lungi” who is said to have “told our member to give him money otherwise our member would be kidnapped and taken to a basti of lepers where our member would be touched by the lepers so that our member would be affected by the disease of leprosy (sic).”
The Delhi government’s official position on the rights of beggars is similarly prejudiced and lacking in compassion. The Director of Social Welfare claimed that beggars’ courts were too lenient on the beggars. There are hoardings in the city that proclaim that alms weaken the receiver and the country. An half-page newspaper advertisement sponsored by the Delhi government dramatically and expansively educates citizens that their “alms may cause traffic jams, accidents, illiteracy, inconvenience, unemployment, biri, cigarette, alcohol, bhang, ganja, charas, heroin… mandrax, robbery, rape, sex, theft, murder, prostitution, handicapped, assault, hooliganism’ and then even more mysteriously ‘slums, poverty, debt, ignorance, aggression, encroachment, molestation, mugging…”
Much of this fierce and mindless middle-class prejudice against beggars is fuelled by the conviction that begging is organised by mafias, and that beggars choose this as an easy and lazy option. In a sample survey in Delhi, we found that it is just the opposite — extreme poverty and unemployment account for an overwhelming percentage of the population of beggars, with disability and disease forming a substantial percentage. Children are mostly found to beg because their families are unable to feed them. We also found instances of children who beg while also attending school. The survey did not find a single case of any beggar mafia. Remarkably, the Delhi High Court was officially informed that a study by the Crime Branch confirmed that there was indeed no such mafia operating in Delhi. Justice Sarin disagreed with the directions of the High Court and their endorsement by the Delhi government, maintaining that detaining beggars was “nothing short of de-humanising them and they should be let of after an admonition”.
Similarly in a study in Chennai, it was found that 68.75 per cent beggars were disabled or diseased. Nearly half were aged. Many women in begging were deserted, sometimes with children and no roof. Most beggars are cast away by their families, some beg because they don’t want to be burdened on those who feed them, and almost all have struggled through many low-end professions before they resort to begging.
The stigma of leprosy and mental illness, and many forms of disability, make employment almost impossible. Vocations like street vending are barred by government, and state pensions still cover a very small population of the aged and disabled. Many traditional arts have no market. Community support systems have also decayed. In these circumstances, as Muruganadam put it, “After I got a paralytic attack, I was left with two options, suicide or begging. I chose begging”.
It is time that we recognise that begging is last resort for barest survival by people who are the rejects of our world, cast away by disability, disease, stigma and age, and a government that refuses to care enough to ensure basic social security for all its citizens. We cannot blame beggars for seeking alms. We must blame ourselves.
Harsh Mander is the convenor of Aman Biradari