July 23, 2022

Good morning. Every Saturday, we write about one specific right that we possess as citizens in our country. In today’s edition of “Know Your Rights”, we examine the rights of beggars.


Rights of Beggars

An unfortunately common sight on Indian roads is begging. We’ve often seen young women, with a child in hand, tapping on car windows seeking some money. In some cases, children themselves are in the middle of the street seeking money. It’s a stark reminder that despite all the economic progress India has made, it has left many behind.

Some surveys show India has more people living below the poverty line than any other country. According to the 2011-12 estimates, India had more than 260 million below the poverty line. The pandemic certainly didn’t help matters. So, what has been done about it? Broadly speaking, it’s an economic problem that won’t be solved overnight. Some states have taken it upon themselves to act. For example, Delhi launched a rehabilitation drive to help beggars get employment opportunities.

What has the judiciary said?

For starters, it should be noted that India doesn’t have an explicit federal law on begging and destitution. However, the issue has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which had its say. Last year, the court refused to ban begging. The bench said it was a socio-economic problem since people were forced to beg for their livelihood.

The matter came up on a petition concerning vaccination and rehabilitation of beggars and the homeless. It sent a notice to the Centre and the Delhi government. The court didn’t want to take an elitist view, in its opinion, on removing beggars from the streets.

This is in contrast to what the Bombay High Court once said when it dismissed a petition asking the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to provide food and water to beggars. It said homeless people should also work for the country, and the state can’t provide everything to them.

Laws against begging – a timeline

Article 21, the right to life and the right to live with dignity, has been broadly interpreted by the Supreme Court. The court said this includes the right to livelihood. Article 23 states the right to a life free from exploitation.

While there’s no federal law, some states have anti-begging laws. Arguably the most prominent is the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. Many state laws are derivatives of this. They have either been modelled after this law or adopted a similar one for their state. To understand the law is to understand some basic rights enshrined in the Indian constitution. Begging is not just a simple economic condition. It also involves denial of citizenship, their right to live in a dignified manner, and the right to work.

Laws concerning begging goes back to colonial India. The term ‘vagrant’ was used to describe unemployed Europeans in places like Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. In India, the first piece of legislation against begging was the European Vagrancy Act, 1824. Section 23 outlined punishment for European vagrants seeking alms even if they had enough to survive. That punishment involved imprisonment for up to a month for first-time offenders.

Next came the Bombay City Police Act of 1861. This was more broad-based. It penalised all forms of begging. It also reprimanded anyone involved, like someone employing children to make them beg. Jurist Henry Maine drafted a Vagrancy Bill in 1869. He said vagrancy needed to be eradicated as it posed a political risk to the British race.

Bombay Prevention of Begging Act

The Bombay Beggars Act was enacted in 1945. It was later replaced by the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. The main aim of the new law was to help beggars through rehabilitation. Essentially, get them back on their feet. However, the Act, which is present in some form or another in about 20 states currently, has come under criticism.

A part of the Act gives the police the power to arrest a person who is found begging. They don’t even need a warrant. The Act is seen as harsh and punitive. It doesn’t take into account why a person has resorted to begging. As this piece explains, it’s oblivious to the historical discrimination faced by marginalised communities dating back to Colonial rule. It deems certain communities to be habitually criminal and necessary to be constantly monitored and punished.

In 2018, despite the Delhi High court striking down certain provisions of the law, many of Mumbai’s poor are still branded criminals. What happens then is some of them are convicted without any evidence that they were beggars. Many are put in homes where they’re subject to abuse and unhygienic conditions.

Some would argue that anti-beggary laws are inherently anti-constitutional. In fact, there’s an argument that begging is a constitutionally protected expression. Begging isn’t a commercial transaction as there isn’t any exchange of goods or services. It’s a one-sided act.

Begging is a socio-economic welfare issue that states and legislatures need to tackle. As veteran journalist Rahul Singh wrote, the answer lies in eradicating poverty. He agreed with the apex court’s decision to not ban begging and instead wants to focus on better education and healthcare. It’s important to have alternate, well-paying, and dignified employment opportunities rather than criminalising those who’ve not been scooped up by the positive economic wave.