The hopes of activists and the public, that the government would finally address the issue of abject poverty and exploitation of beggars was destroyed when the government decided to abandon the newly-modeled Beggar Rehabilitation Bill.
The Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016, was introduced by the Modi government to address the issue of chronic beggary and homelessness in India.
But no movement was observed in the bill after its initial introduction and it was ultimately dropped. Meanwhile, beggars and destitutes were yet again rounded up by the police in Hyderabad before the visit of US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump in November 2017. Similar tactics were adopted when former US President Bill Clinton visited India in 2000.
India Should Meet Expectations of a Welfare State
Beggary and homelessness is prevalent in India due to many reasons, chief among them being greater economic segregation and insufficient access to affordable and high-quality education.
According to the 2011 Census, there are about 4.13 lakhs of beggars and homeless people in India, of which non-workers comprise approximately 90 percent and under-marginal workers comprise the remaining 10 percent.
It was also reported that the 90 percent of the total reported vagrants (beggars and homeless people) are under the age of 14. It should be also noted that the data is approximately seven years old and the situation is bound to have worsened.
The incidence of mafia-controlled begging and human trafficking further complicates matters. It is reported that almost 3,00,000 kids are forced to beg everyday by human trafficking cartels most of whom are missing and are intentionally maimed so that they receive more money (out of sympathy).
Analysts argue that the condition is worsening due to lack of any comprehensive policy addressing the issue of beggary.
The Indian Constitution under Article 21 guarantees right to life, which does not merely involve the act of breathing but also incorporates the right to live with dignity, with livelihood, with good health and all other aspects which make a human life meaningful and wholesome.
In several different rulings, the Supreme Court has also established such an interpretation of Article 21. Beggary can be classified as exploitation and is also against Article 23 (right of life free from exploitation) of the Constitution.
Thus, as India is a social welfare state, it is the responsibility of the government to develop policies so that all its citizens can achieve that wholesome life. India is also part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which has a provision for right to living with dignity, and the lack of any concrete policies to deal with the issue of beggary and homelessness is inconsistent with that provision.
Shortcomings of Extant Laws
All the previous attempts of policy development pertaining to beggary have been enacted as anti-beggary laws at the state level. In India, there is a provision for some form of anti-beggary legislation or the other, in 22 states and union-territories.
The most prominent of these individual provisions is the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act of 1959 which makes begging a serious offense which is compoundable and non-bailable.
Some examples of other legislative provisions are Bihar Prevention of Beggary Act, 1952, the Bhopal Prevention of Beggary Act, 1947 and the more recent Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, which establishes harsher implications on beggary without any proper rehabilitative measures.
However, the current anti-beggary laws have a lot of shortcomings, which have made them practically ineffective and oppressive. These laws go with the “one size fits all” solution for controlling beggary.
Also, the current provisions and laws have a bias against beggars and the destitute as evident from the case Ram Lakhan vs State. Numerous other provisions such as arrest without warrant, guilty by association, etc. also depict this bias.
Need for a Comprehensive Anti-Beggary Law
Further, it should be noted that due to the complex factors associated with the prevalence of beggary in India, most of the laws were developed around addressing only the individual contributing factors.
But such individual laws are not synchronised. For example, Juvenile Justice Act (Care and Protection of Children Act), 2015 identifies child beggars as “child in need of care and protection”, which clashes with the persecutive provision of Bombay Prevention of Begging Act. Thus, the dire need for a more comprehensive bill.
The Modi government proposed the Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016 to address the shortcomings of the previous bills. This bill suggested that the law enforcement should focus on rehabilitation rather than on persecution.
It also proposed that the government should maintain centres to provide vocational training, counseling, etc. and should help in rehabilitating the destitute. Although the bill still left much to be desired, it was a huge improvement on the the generic anti-beggary laws.
It had many progressive provisions, such as establishment of “outreach and mobilisation unit” to identity and recommend destitutes for rehabilitation, vocational training/skill development and other necessary rehabilitative services at care centres, creating a central fund which would supplement the fund of states for the rehabilitation program etc.
Unfortunately, the central government passed the buck to the state government when the counsel for the Centre said, “the proposal is dead and the states are empowered to do (what they have to) on their own”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi still has a chance to make history by reviving the bill and providing the world with a progressive blueprint to address this issue.
(The author is a structural engineer and independent domestic and foreign policy analyst with The Diplomat and Swarajya, and a political strategist with the ‘Yes We Can campaign’. He can be reached at @swaptiktweets. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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