'Beggary law a means to punish destitute'

In the narrow staircase leading to a mosque in the Paharganj Main Bazaar, three young women settle themselves in a neat line before the prayers begin.

Payal, Sangeeta and Mamta come here once a week – on Fridays from their slum in Uttam Nagar in west Delhi. They admit they have never thought of working for a living. “I have been begging since childhood. I only go to mosques to beg,” says Payal, 20.

“On different days, we go to different mosques. My parents also beg back in Ajmer (in Rajasthan). We earn between Rs 50 and Rs 100 daily,” says Mamta, 20.

Sangeeta, 19, adds that the day’s earnings come during prayer times, when the mosque sees the maximum turnout. “It is not easy to find work. So, we beg.”

A person found receiving alms in a public space can be penalised for begging under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959. Beggars can be sentenced to beggar homes for three years and in case of a repeat offender for 10 years. Social Welfare Department officials said sentencing beggars up to three years rare. The exception lies in cases when beggars suffer from leprosy.

So are the poor to be blamed?

Activists and Department of Social Welfare officials have now questioned the relevance of the law. They believe the law criminalises poverty instead of helping the destitute.

“Undoubtedly an abusive law, Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act (BPBA), 1959, adopted by several other states (including Delhi), was meant to prevent beggary through training and rehabilitation of those into begging. There is hardly anything in the law that can facilitate rehabilitation. In effect, it is not a law aimed at the rehabilitation of persons but a means to punish poor persons,” Mohammed Tarique, director of Koshish, an NGO that addresses issues of beggary, destitution and homeless.

In several cases, raiding officers are unable to differentiate between a destitute and a habitual beggar and a destitute.

Activists who have closely worked with the poor detained in beggar homes say in several cases it was found a labourer or an accident victim took to begging when no other option was available during the recovery period. Sneha Chandna who works with Koshish, Delhi, points out the beggary prevention legislation criminalises begging assuming that begging or “being in a state of destitution” is a choice people make.

The law overlooks the fact that the person does not have any other support system,
she adds.

“The law should be enabling one – one that assists and supports an individual to get out of his/ her state of vulnerability,” says Asif Iqbal from Koshish.

The law also criminalises people asking for alms by singing, dancing fortune telling and performing in public space.

“This means the law criminalises denotified tribes who eke out a living as snake charmers and street performers for several generations now. The homeless and the destitute are also at times mistaken as beggars,” says Ashwani Kumar, welfare officer at Department of Social Welfare.

Rehabilitation is difficult once the destitute are sent to homes. “There remains little scope for rehabilitation after they are labelled as beggars,” says a senior official of the department.

He recounts an anecdote in which he found an inmate selling tea at a station many years after serving his sentence. “He was attracting customers by calling out kharab (bad) chai. When I asked, he told me people at his village call him kharab since they came to know he went to a jail for beggars,” says the official.

Currently, Delhi has 11 beggar homes. But activists say putting beggars in beggar homes will not change the situation till the law is analysed. The causes which lead people to begging need to be looked into.

“An enforced stay in a beggar home cannot deter them from returning to begging when they come out,” says Tarique.

The existing beggar homes have inadequate facilities with rehabilitation programmes missing. The infrastructure is poor.

Experts believe the nature of the institutions needs to change. The beggar homes should be turned into open homes or old age homes where the destitute can avail different services.

“The punitive framework must be altered into a rehabilitative response. The State must build capacities of persons in distress so that they can support themselves. The current legal approach addresses the issue from the wrong end,” says Tarique.

The series is concluded

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