Address poverty, not the poor

Amiti Pande 

[dropcap]K[/dropcap]udos to the Delhi High Court that struck down those provisions of law in the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 which classify begging as a crime and sanctions punitive actions against beggars including incarceration. A landmark judgement in which 25 sections of this act have been declared to be “unconstitutional”. The bench comprising Justices Gita Mittal and C Hari Shankar has refuted the idea of begging being a disease observing “people beg on streets not because they wish to, but because they need to”. Treating the act as a crime does tackle the issue that is the poverty and penury in this country. The most basic concept to be understood is that by solely removing beggars will not and shall not eradicate begging and by the extension poverty. And by failing to recognise that the state is faltering.

First things first. Why does someone beg? Why is a person forced to a point where she/he has no option left other than begging? What is the situational background of such a person? There are many questions to be asked about this, one answer to all of them- the state and it’s policies. What is happening is that the state is failing to protect it’s citizens with a social security net who then fall off the BPL (below the poverty line). It is the government’s responsibility to provide with basic facilities and ensure that all citizens have access to them. Failing to comply with this is leading to people resorting to begging in order to get through days and survive. Of course begging is the last resort to secure sustenance of any kind and resorting to it only highlights the glaring deficiencies in state policies.

I am not saying begging should be encouraged and made legal. But what is one to do when one has absolutely no access to basic amenities of food, clothing and shelter. Criminalising begging would only take away the fundamental right to secure sustenance of the weakest and the most vulnerable section of our society. If a person is compelled to beg then you should not take away his only medium to communicate, that addresses his plight and betters his situation. Can a destitute begging for a living be treated as a criminal?

Having said this, one sensitive and important facet of the whole issue should be brought to light and should be dwelled upon by the state. This is precisely what the ruling observes and highlights too. The court added to their judgment that while there is no ground to classify begging as a criminal activity, the state is at full liberty to bring into effect an alternative wing of legislation that looks into and takes care of rackets encouraging forced begging to find ways to bring them to a stop. The problem of organised begging rackets is real and needs to approached by other means. The prevalence of begging rackets must be curbed but not by criminalising begging altogether instead by applying the law of trafficking.

Hyderabad, last year, saw a thriving begging racket in which the poor and vulnerable were exploited repeatedly. A physically challenged Mahesh was brought into the city by Sukhiya from Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh promising him employment and livelihood. This employment turned out to begging on streets on a wheelchair. On being asked by the police when this racket was uncovered, Mahesh said he made Rs 2,000 on an average day out of which only Rs 200 were his share. The rest was Sukhiya’s share who provided him with the wheelchair and hired a third person Deepak Kumar to take Sukhiya around on the wheelchair and make the story look more convincing. Monthly earning: Rs 3 lakh for Sukhiya by way of this forced begging racket. Now the alarming the fact: this is just the tip of the ice berg. There are Sukhiyas in every corner of India making a killing by forcing the weak to go and beg for them. Similar rackets have come to light with blind people being taken advantage of and being made to beg.

In June 2018, Lok Sabha passed a comprehensive law to contain human trafficking of any kind in which begging was included amongst others. It laid down stringent punishment for those found guilty with 10 years of life imprisonment and upto Rs 1 lakh fine with separate penalties for repeat offenders. Trafficking is exactly the law these begging rackets need to be assessed and understood under. With each passing day the laws on human trafficking are being made more and more stringent and powerful. So the distinction between begging and begging rackets needs to be made clear and is not be confused with. This means remedying them will also entail equally distinct actions and policies.

Regard the poor not as criminals to be sentenced but candidates to be protected. The traffickers, the exploiters, the racketeers shall be punished make no mistake but not the ones who have been compelled by their own needs. The Delhi High Court’s judgement revisits the values of inclusiveness and tolerance as virtues and are reference to the ideals of liberty, equality and dignity. We witness constitutional conscience coming to fore backed by the spirit of human rights. Good times ahead, so I hope.

(Author is an artist & freelance writer)