No matter how much money you have, you can make some bad decisions, and in months you’re on the street, begging — goes a saying. People, no doubt, need help when they are broke or facing tough times. That way, the recent decision of the Delhi High Court to decriminalise begging in the Capital is a welcome step. The marginalised who beg not by choice but out of compulsion must be supported as it is not only humane but also the duty of the fellow mortals to help their poor consorts live with dignity.
A bench of acting chief justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar observed on August 8 that prosecutions under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, would be liable to be struck down. The verdict defines begging as the last resort to subsistence. In no way does it set a precedent, and neither does it empathise with the weaker sections of society. In all its earnestness, it acknowledges that the practice of begging is an end, not a means, for those the state failed to support with basic economic aid and social security. The Delhi High Court bench must be hailed for the judgement. But things are not as simple and straight as they appear when it comes to begging and beggars.
The problem arises when the act of begging is made into a business. At individual level, it’s not hard to find alms-seekers misusing the charitable nature of the general public to earn easy money. Begging mafias are commonplace in most cities of the country. It is also well-known that cuts are given to the local mafioso, the cops and sundry civic officials. Many of the indigent are substance addicts who need money for a fix, for which they ultimately resort to begging. Thus, decriminalising the act in Delhi should, in some way, only be limited to those who beg out of necessity. Else, chances are that the exploitation of women and children will increase and the relaxation is misused by the wrong elements of the society.
According to a Japanese saying, “it is a beggar’s honour that he is not a thief.” The Indian law — a remnant of colonial-era policy making — somehow doesn’t see much difference between the two. Some of the draconian provisions of the age-old Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, that was applicable in Delhi and various of other states included a jail term of three years for first-time offenders. The punishment could be extended to 10 years for repeating the offence. Besides, the Act included in its ambit not only those who seek alms, but also those who tried to earn a living by way of showcasing their skills — dancing, singing, music, trapeze or any other performance act in public areas and roads.
In the latest verdict, the court rightly highlighted that the root cause of begging is poverty. There are also many other social, societal and governmental reasons behind it. Illiteracy, absence of social protection, caste-based discrimination, physical and mental disabilities and consequent isolation, etc, were also listed by the court.
As per the official figures, there are around 100,000 beggars who roam the streets of Delhi. Criminalising and decriminalising the act may not help much in reducing their numbers or improving their condition. The government needs to frame policy to cure the socio-economic ills that create beggars, not punishing people for falling victim to these. It must also crack down on the organised begging racket lest decriminalisation becomes an incentive for it to exploit people without means. The efforts to find solution to the problem must be multi-tiered, multi-faceted and multi-agency. The earlier we act the better. Else, begging will continue in the country for a very long time to come.