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New Delhi’s war on beggars

by Harsh Mander, 2 February 2009

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Sunday Magazine, The Hindu, January 25, 2009

The war against begging

Being destitute in our country has been made a crime. And the punishment is often inhumane…

From time to time, governments declare war on beggars. These despised and dispensable individuals, who live customarily by alms, can never hope to win a battle against such a powerful adversary as the State. Instead, they deploy their own time-tested weapons: a stubborn, if fatalist, resolve to survive, as they have against so many other odds, and a capacity to absorb every humiliation. They just lie low, bide out their time and return eventually to their shamed vocation. No other paths are open to them.

The war on beggars is engined by enormous middle class hostility to the begrimed men, women and children in rags, often with matted hair, disabilities and sores, who stretch out their palms peremptorily demanding our charity. The middle class resent the way these illegitimate denizens crowd decent public spaces like cinemas, traffic light intersections, shopping arcades and places of worship, wheedling them annoyingly for alms. They are embarrassed by their "in-the-face" poverty, and convinced that they are lazy, unwilling to earn an honest day’s work, and members of dangerous gangs which kidnap and maim children. They are the "undeserving poor", who must be driven away or locked up for the larger benefit of decent, law-abiding citizens. In these beliefs, they are supported by the law, police, courts, welfare departments and the media.

Mere impediments?

The most recent skirmish in this sporadic warfare is a recent notification by the Delhi Traffic Police under the Motor Vehicles Act, which slaps fines of Rs. 1,000 on those who give alms to people begging at traffic lights. Beggars are therefore seen not as a spectacular human tragedy but an impediment to traffic. This view is endorsed by courts. In response to what was claimed to be a "public interest" litigation filed by a group of advocates — which characterised beggars as "the ugly face of the nation’s capital" which cause, among other sinister things, "road rage" — the learned judges of the Delhi High Court agreed that beggars should be removed from Delhi as they "obstruct the smooth flow of traffic". The Delhi Social Welfare Department holds those who give money to beggars guilty of even more than delaying traffic. In an advertisement blitz last year in many national newspapers, it claimed dramatically that those who give beggars "alms may cause traffic jams, accidents, illiteracy, inconvenience, unemployment, biri, cigarette, alcohol, bhang, ganja, charas, heroin… mandrax, robbery, rape, sex, theft, murder, prostitution, handicapped, assault, hooliganism" and then even more darkly "slums, poverty, debt, ignorance, aggression, encroachment, molestation, mugging…"
Prejudiced perceptions

Hostility against beggars derives from the conviction that there are dangerous beggar mafias and gangs, which abduct children, cut off their limbs and blind them, and then use them for begging. These beliefs are deemed to be self-evident truths, requiring no evidence or verification. The Delhi Police was asked by the High Court to investigate allegations of such mafias, and it finally reported on oath to the court that the Delhi Crime Branch has found no evidence of such mafias. In my own extensive engagement with homeless populations for many years, including those who are in begging, I too have not encountered such mafias. This does not mean there is no coercion on children to beg. Children often beg because their parents and guardians send them out to beg, or simply because they do not feed them. They may do this because they are destitute, such as single homeless mothers, or when parents are addicted to substances, very ill and disabled, or when children have no responsible adult protection.

Coercion by adult guardians to beg must be dealt with in the same way as other forms of child labour are best combated, not by criminalising the parents or children, but by enforcing the fundamental right to education, which for homeless street children requires a network of hundreds of open residential schools in all cities. And if begging mafias do indeed exist in any city, it does not require any special law. Section 363A of the Indian Penal Code, for instance, specifically deals with the kidnapping and maiming of children for begging.

The notion that begging is a crime derives not just from fears of begging mafias, but also from the conviction that begging is the first resort of the lazy poor. It assumes that most homeless people beg as a matter of choice. But as a recent study by PUCL-CSDS in Delhi found, only nine per cent homeless adults beg. Remarkably, we have found this ratio to apply even to street children, who prefer work — picking rags, serving tea in eateries or even vocations on the dark side of the law — to begging, except the very small, rarely more than 10 per cent of the total. The PUCL-CSDS study, however, found that nearly 23 per cent homeless people are able to find work only in Delhi for barely 15 days a month, while another 33 per cent get work for anything between 16 to 25 days. These are the rare able-bodied people who beg, although the large majority of adult beggars are disabled, infirm, or with stigmatised ailments like leprosy and mental illness which debar them from work. My own experience has consistently been that when people who beg are offered dignified alternative work, the overwhelming majority welcome this.

The criminalising of begging is a relatively recent colonial construction. Traditional societies have been much more tolerant of people who live by begging, and some traditions like Buddhism in fact valorise begging by holy men because it is believed to teach them humility, and enables them to break away from all forms of material bondage. It was in the 1920s that begging was first declared a crime in British India, and the law was updated as the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act in 1959, and extended to 18 States including Delhi. This law provides for the jailing up to three years in special "beggars’ courts" of all people caught begging, which can be extended to 10 years in case of second and repeated "offences". The definition under this law of beggars includes not just seeking of alms, but also traditional artists, as "singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale", all of which are deemed as offences under this Act. The definition of begging even includes simply "having no visible means of subsistence". In other words, it makes destitution a crime, punishable by incarceration. Since many beggars suffer from leprosy and mental illness, it implicitly criminalises these ailments as well.

The operation of this patently anti-poor law is even more merciless and problematic. Teams of policemen and women with lay aides and armed with sticks, conduct periodic drives against homeless populations, rounding up men, women and children, not those who are actually found begging, but mostly those whose only crime is that they are manifestly penniless and unwashed. They are beaten into waiting vehicles, and it is usually only the most nimble street urchins who manage to escape. They are then presented before specially designated magistrates of beggars’ courts, who summarily enquire whether those rounded up, are people who live by begging. We have observed the functioning of these courts for several years, and found that it is very rare for elementary procedures of law to be applied in these courts. A person should be deemed innocent unless proved otherwise, and the duty lies with the State to produce evidence of guilt. However, for those charged with the "crime" of begging, usually little or no evidence is produced or even sought, and large numbers are sentenced by judges on whimsical considerations such as of their obviously extremely impoverished appearance.

The litigation in the Delhi High Court seeks not reform but more extensive application of this law. The court has therefore directed the establishment of mobile beggars’ courts to facilitate larger application of this law. The Director of Social Welfare complained to the court that beggars’ court magistrates were too lenient in applying the law against offenders. Humane voices of dissent are rare, such as of Justice Sarin, who maintained that detaining beggars was "nothing short of dehumanising them and they should be let of after an admonition."

Sub-human conditions

People who are so deemed to be guilty of begging are then sentenced to incarceration in certified beggars’ homes. I have visited these in many cities, and found them typically to be in far worse conditions of disrepair and sanitation than ordinary jails which house others charged with more mainstream crimes. Jails in India have been documented to be sub-human habitations, therefore the state of beggars’ homes which house the most powerless, destitute and stigmatised people can well be imagined. Residents of beggars’ homes are rarely allowed even to move out of almost bare dimly lit dormitories, which reek of excreta, stale air and unwashed bodies. Some die during incarceration, of cholera and malnourishment. In theory, the incarcerated "beggars" are to be prepared for alternative vocations, but I have rarely found these in practice in any beggars’ homes I have visited.

The poor in our cities are more than mere impediments to traffic and embarrassments. The Delhi government is worried about the adverse image of India which overseas visitors will take away in the 2010 Commonwealth Games if they find beggars on the streets of a city which aspires to be what it describes as "world class". Is this aspirational city one which criminalises its most destitute citizens, drives them away or locks them up? Or is it a city which truly cares?