The High Court observed that the magistrate court order “was passed without complying with the prescribed procedure”.
The Bombay High Court recently said that a random police drive held in Nashik to clear beggars and the subsequent magistrate court’s order to put them under year-long detention in beggar’s home was unconstitutional.
As many as 160 people, most of them hawkers, were detained by Nashik police on May 7, 2018. They were produced before a magistrate court the same day, and sentenced to year-long detention in beggar’s home under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1960. Of them, 19 were children.
The High Court observed that the magistrate court order “was passed without complying with the prescribed procedure”. The arrested “beggars” were not given a chance to produce evidence that they were not begging, and no enquiry was held into their arrest, the court observed. “The principle of natural justice cannot be brushed aside. Person cannot be branded as beggar casually and his liberty cannot be curtailed without following procedure established by law,” the court said.
While the bench headed by Justice Prakash D Naik passed the order in July 2018, the order copy was uploaded only in November 2019. The 160 people remained in detention for three months.
The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act makes begging an offence. The punishment for first-time offenders can range from one to three years in detention inside a beggars home. The Act also states that those who have been detained should also be provided vocational training. But in Chembur beggar’s home in Mumbai, where 30 such women were detained, no skill training is currently provided.
Of the 160 people detained and pronounced beggars, most were families. These families were, however, separated with women and children transferred to Chembur beggar’s home while men were sent to Ahmednagar beggar’s home.
Sangeeta Tumbde and her two children, who were picked up by police, were separated for three months. Sangeeta, a sweeper in a local Nashik temple, was sent to Chembur beggar’s home, her daughter and son were transferred to female and male shelter home in Nashik. “Her children used to go to school, but after the police picked them up, they missed their education for three months. None of them used to beg,” said neighbour Sanjeevani Ghate. When the three were picked, Sangeeta’s husband was admitted in Nashik hospital. “He did not even know where they were for a month. It took six months for Sangeeta to return to Nashik. They were in a lot of stress,” Ghate added.
The people picked up claimed that police asked them to accompany on pretext of getting their Aadhaar cards made. They were later arrested, not provided legal aid and sentenced to a year-long detention. Most of them were, in fact, hawkers.
Sonali Khandavi, who lived in a village 19 km from Nashik city, suffers from mental illness and had wandered off from her home. After she was picked and sent to Mumbai beggar’s home, her family started searching for her. “I started inquiring and local residents told me about the beggars drive. I started calling beggar’s home in Nashik and Mumbai. That is how we found her,” said relative Sunil Kolhe.
At least 30 women and 19 children were transferred to Chembur beggar’s home. The women filed a petition in the Bombay High Court against the Nashik Magistrate court’s order. In their petition, they claimed that they sold garlands, balloons, and worked as domestic help. None of their relatives were informed about their arrest and no investigation was carried to prove they were begging, they claimed.
“These people were not given an opportunity to represent themselves. The entire process, from picking them up to the magistrate court’s order of detention happened within a day,” said Mohd Tarique, from NGO Koshish, which works for beggars’ rights.
Officials from Women and Child Development (WCD) department said the Nashik police drive was conducted after the department passed orders for child begging prevention campaign. Six teams were formed, with each team comprising a police officer, two women constables, male constable, WCD officer, child protection officer, and representative from social welfare organisation. In a response filed in the High Court, they claimed to have found 33 children begging. Officials said the detained people were allowed to call their families.
Amongst the oldest to be picked up in the drive was 72-year-old Ramabai Patankar, who suffers from elephantiasis. “They gave me food and bed in beggar’s home. I had no problem, but I am not a beggar,” Patankar says. Abandoned by her daughter, she now lives with her relative in Nashik.