Poverty as crime

Print edition : November 22, 2002

The recent Delhi High Court order to clear the capital city of beggars is seen to ignore the rights of destitute people and the problems they face.

Outside a temple in Delhi.-S. ARNEJA

"The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitie ... but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing."

John Berger, in The Soul and the Operator

ON September 24, the Delhi High Court directed the Delhi administration to clear the capital city of beggars and hawkers as they `obstruct the smooth flow of traffic', and, within four months, to devise a rehabilitation plan for street children affected by the order. The order came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) petition that described beggars and homeless people as the `ugly face of the nation's capital' and as people who, among other things, caused `road rage'.

The recent Traffic Police notification (under the Motor Vehicles Act) that provides for the imposition of a fine on motorists who give money to beggars or buy things from street vendors can be seen as an outcome of this aggressive approach against beggary. According to Maxwell Pereira, Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic), beggary is a menace that "flourishes with impunity in the streets of Delhi much to the disgust, distaste and horror of the community at large. The first thing every tourist learns about India is that it is a land of beggars."

Indu Prakash Singh, director of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of homeless people, says that the debate over beggary in Delhi boils down to a tale of two cities. At one level is the Delhi with its upwardly mobile society aspiring to world standards of conspicuous consumption. At the other is a Delhi representing a different world altogether of scarcity, struggle and homelessness, cowering under its newly constructed flyovers. But Delhi's development trajectory has very rarely incorporated the concerns of those who belong to the latter world.

New Delhi is a city where over a hundred thousand people have no homes to live. There are no reliable figures on what proportion of this group could be classified as beggars.

The Indian law on beggary can throw up some complex questions on social categories and the disciplining power of the state. The law is a throwback to the centuries-old European vagrancy laws, and shows up the difference between the official script, which held that the homeless were lazy and deserving of punishment, and the actual drama that characterised their hapless lives.

Since 1961, the city of Delhi has been administered by the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which makes begging in public places a crime and a punishable offence. Officials of the Social Welfare Department, assisted by the police, conduct raids to pick up beggars, who are then tried in a special court and, if convicted, sent to a certified institution.

The Act lumps together various kinds of people, including street performers, mendicants and small vendors who might solicit alms `indirectly', as beggars. Clause (d) of the Act describes beggars as people "having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about, or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner, makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms." This single clause ranges itself against anyone who appears poor and destitute. Thus, a rag-picker or a migrant labourer who may never have begged in his or her life can be picked up and incarcerated in a beggars' home for a period of up to three years at a stretch.

"If I had to choose the worst, most anti-poor law, it would be this one," says Harsh Mander, country director of Action Aid India, which funds Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan. The law makes the poor not only "responsible for their situation, but criminally responsible for it". Under the Act, 12 statutory institutions 10 for male beggars and two for female beggars were set up for the prevention of begging; the detention, training and employment of beggars; and the custody, trial and punishment of offenders under the law.

"The law does not address the socio-economic basis of beggary but criminalises it instead. The whole scheme of the Act is punitive," says Jaishree Suryanarayanan, a lawyer associated with Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan who has facilitated the establishment of a legal aid mechanism in the beggars' court in Delhi. She alleged that the city administration's recent crackdown was pitched at middle-class sensibilities. "The aggressive anti-beggar legislation is intended to wipe the desperately poor off the city's map so that we, as a society, can continue to neglect them without having to confront their struggle on a daily basis," she said.

She pointed out that organised begging, often involving maiming, was widely seen as being exploitative and coercive but there was a startling lack of documented evidence on this. The anti-beggary law itself does not draw any distinction between organised begging where one or more persons are compelled to beg by force and people who beg to sustain themselves. The current institutionalised approach to beggars would merely serve to punish destitute people, she said. People who are driven to begging many of whom are unable to find employment because of old age, physical disability, or drug problems would remain as desperate as before, she added.

The Indian Penal Code (Section 363A) deals with the kidnapping and maiming of a minor for purposes of begging. However, the police seem strangely reluctant to use this, preferring to book `unwanted elements' like homeless people and drug addicts in their area under the Bombay Act, as their responsibility stops with arresting. "In our experience in the beggars' court, the Bombay Act is hardly ever used to arrest people who maim or coerce people for purposes of begging. In six months of our work there, we have come across one case and that too where the victim (a blind person) has been convicted and sentenced for two years. The persons who were forcing him to beg and were living off his earnings have not even been proceeded against," said a lawyer working at the beggars' court in Kingsway Camp.

"Even more than the formulation of the law, I have problems with its implementation," says Harsh Mander. The criteria employed by the Social Welfare Department and the police to identify and pick up beggars are arbitrary and unfair. Mistakes abound, and often those who look unkempt and miserable are assumed to be derelict. "For example, if you have soft hands, that could send you to the beggars' court," added Mander. The beggars' court at Kingsway Camp offers striking examples of this attitude. Mahavir Prasad, a halwai (confectioner) hailing from Pune, was travelling through Delhi when he developed a foot infection. While asking for directions to a hospital where he could get medical aid, he was hauled up for begging. "How can I inform my family? To be accused of beggary is the worst humiliation I could suffer," he said.

"It depends on the judge sometimes all the cases may be pardoned," said Momina Jahan, a law student, at the beggars' court. In order to combat the apathy of the law, a committed coalition comprising lawyers from the Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, the Human Rights Law Network, and students from the Law department of the University of Delhi provides legal help free of charge. Their involvement has been a big factor in tempering the ways of the beggars' court.

Two years ago, several people died of cholera in the Lampur beggar home, creating an uproar in the media over the horrific conditions in such institutions. The Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi ordered an inquiry into the matter. The committee's report strongly pushed for a review of the law. "The beggar homes feed and clothe their inmates, and pay Rs.12 for an hour of constructive work," says N.N. Vohra, Director of the Social Welfare Department. The physically challenged and the leprosy afflicted people find beggar homes a real refuge as they are the ones who suffer the most living on the streets.

However, Jaishree Suryanarayanan feels that such a coercive approach is not justified, because "the tacit assumption is that the poor have no agency, and can just be deprived of their liberty and shunted wherever they can be fed and clothed," she said. "The government spends around Rs.30,000 per head to maintain these homes. Why can't that money be redirected to ensure proper livelihood training?" asks Harsh Mander.

Destitution was previously accommodated in the rural, pre-development state ethos. Whether it was the bhikshu ideal in Hinduism, or zakat in Islam, or the Christian ideal of charity, vagrancy and need were dealt with from within the social support structures. However, as the moral basis of traditional society crumbles, responsibility towards the needy is shifted to state welfare schemes.

Vohra lists clay-modelling, candle-making, gardening and laundering as some of the training activities at the homes. But he has this apprehension: "Will manufacturing units employ beggars? Will people employ them as domestic help? Are we expected to give them government jobs?" He stressed the need for the corporate sector and civil society to accept responsibility for the task. "The first step towards preventing begging is to stop giving alms. How can people expect any effective action when begging is such a lucrative means of livelihood, when a person can earn up to Rs.450 a day doing nothing?" he asked.

A study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a Delhi-based research group, pegs a beggar's average earnings at about Rs.50 a day on the basis of the statements of over 60 per cent of the beggars interviewed.

Secondly, this argument buys into the fiction that most beggars shirk gainful employment. "Will the government give us work? Why would I beg if I could find work? But I don't want to go to jail to work," says Bantu, who makes a living by begging at the Nizamuddin crossing.

According to the CMS report, 90 per cent of Delhi's population of beggars are migrants from such States as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A study conducted by Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan shows that nearly all of them were pushed to Delhi not by the lure of the big city but by the grinding poverty in their native places.

Compared to cities, rural areas are better served by welfare schemes for the poor. The rootlessness and anonymity of the urban destitute most of these people have no residence papers and hence their names do not figure in the voters' lists make it easy for local authorities to shrug off whatever nominal responsibility they owe them. For these dislocated, dispossessed and disenfranchised people, begging is a matter of survival; an enforced stay in a beggar home cannot deter them from returning to begging when they come out.

Chandni, an aged woman who is a regular at the Sai Baba temple in Lodhi Estate, says: "Where can I possibly go? My daughter is also forced to beg for a living; who would employ her as a domestic help?" She said she had been sent to Sewa Kutir (a beggar home) earlier and dreaded being locked up again.

Jaishree Suryanarayanan pointed out: "We've had this system for over 50 years, and the ranks of beggars are still swelling. This is a chilling statement on the relevance of the law."

With whittled welfare funds, the government clearly does not have the resources to provide a meaningful support system. As Vohra emphasises, battling this problem requires long-term collective action, political will and the services of the local administration, the voluntary sector and the public.

Begging and homelessness do not fundamentally arise out of the urban space, and hence cannot be resolved within its confines alone. The current administrative approach addresses the issue from the wrong end. The real solution, perhaps, is to recognise and combat structural injustices in society and expand livelihood options in the national economy. But in the process, it is vital to envisage a legal system that does not persistently exclude the most vulnerable from the development process.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor