To give beggars dignity, the state and civil society must come together
Last week, the Delhi High Court struck down Delhi’s anti-beggary law which criminalised the most vulnerable people in society: the destitute. Recognising that destitute persons have equal rights to dignity, the judgment revives the possibility of enacting the Persons in Destitution Model Bill into law. Drafted by the ministry of social justice and empowerment in 2016, the bill defines destitution as a “state of poverty or abandonment” among the elderly, infirm, homeless and disabled people. It directs states to identify such people and provide them shelter, health, counselling and employment services. The Bill and the High Court judgment reveal the State’s evolved disposition towards destitute people: from legally rendering their living conditions a crime — once punishable by detention in government remand homes for up to 10 years — to recognising their Constitutional rights to social programmes and rehabilitation.
This change is the result of a decade-long partnership between civil society organisations and state officials, which has led to a drastic reduction in arrests on Delhi’s streets. According to the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) records obtained by Koshish (a civil society organisation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences), the average arrests per month from 2014-2015 to the first half of 2016-2017 dropped from 106.2 to about a dozen. This is significant compared to earlier years — according to DSW records analysed by Dyuotimoy Mukherjee in a 2008 paper, 12 people were arrested daily between 1995 and 2000, and, by 2008, only one-third of 7,598 persons arrested between 1998-2001 had been released.
A decade ago, Koshish began providing detainees legal, counselling, employment and repatriation services, which expedited releases and reconnected some people with their families. They communicated the causes of arrests and conditions of poverty to officials through filing social investigation reports. Their reports showed that detainees were seldom provided information on their arrests and abused. Many were the working poor (for example, rickshawallahs arrested eating a free daily meal at temples) and daily wage earners seeking alms only during employment gaps, injury or illness. Most urban homeless people indeed work daily wage jobs: for caterers, in dhabas and on construction sites.
Back in 2009, activists working with homeless people challenged the validity of The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (extended to Delhi in 1960) before the Delhi High Court. The law, in force in Maharashtra and 19 other states and two Union Territories, criminalises begging (receiving alms in a public place), occupations of nomadic communities (singing, dancing, fortune telling and performing) and street commerce (offering any article of sale). In the decade the petitioners spent in court, the Delhi government did not contest the case. Last week, the Court also agreed with the petitioners, finally. They found most provisions of the Act violated Article 14 (equal protection of law) and Article 21 (the right to dignity) of the Constitution and held that “a person who is compelled to beg cannot be faulted for such actions in these circumstances”. All provisions of the Act providing for arrest or detention of persons found begging were thus struck down.
This leaves open how to use the infrastructure established under the Act. Delhi has 11 remand homes. Each home has one superintendent and welfare officer, and numbers of caretakers and cooks have varied based on occupancies. The Court quotes a report stating that “about 35 lakh ... were being spent on these [rehabilitation] homes every year … compared to [which] the benefit accruing from them to the society is rather negligible”. There is an opportunity now to repurpose these institutions: from incarceration to rehabilitation, via social protection and vocational programmes.
Civil society efforts offer a viable re-imagination of these spaces. Through the consent of the courts, civil society organisations have offered counselling, employment, and aftercare servicers which have resulted in declining arrests. Effective coordination between state and civil society and the change in government attitudes to the urban poor can be harnessed by transforming the destitution Bill into law. This would formalise arrangements already proven to be successful and further reduce formidable barriers working homeless people face.
Ashwin Parulkar and Manish are with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal