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Delhi decriminalizes begging for the first time since India’s independence

By Zeeshan Shaikh (People's Daily Online)    17:29, August 29, 2018

Earlier this month, the Delhi High Court passed an order decriminalising begging in the Indian capital, marking the first time since the country gained independence from British rule.

For many years, Indian activists have been protesting against India’s draconian anti-begging legislation that is based on an archaic British law against vagrants. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959 was first drafted for the state of Maharashtra and later copied by most others. Under India’s federal system, each state government has the right to draft its own laws on subjects classified as state subjects.

Begging is illegal in India and is punishable by imprisonment of between three and 10 years. The statute against begging has been written into the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, which has been followed by almost all of the country’s states thus far. Because the Indian Parliament has never created a central Act against beggary, all states have chosen to follow the law which was first drafted for the Indian state of Maharashtra. Activists claim that the Act provides no clear categorization of beggars, with homeless people and even migrant laborers currently categorized as beggars.

Under the present Act, anyone who has no visible means of subsistence and is found wandering in a public space is deemed a beggar. Those who solicit alms in a public place under any pretence including singing, dancing, fortune telling or street performing are also deemed as beggars.

The present Act gives discretionary powers to the police who can pick anyone up on a hunch that the individual is a beggar or a destitute.

Rather than rehabilitating destitutes, this treatment criminalizes the poor and those suffering from mental illness. If convicted under the old law, a person can spend anything between one to 10 years in a beggar's home.

The Delhi High Court was shown a petition by social activists Harsh Mander and Kartika Sawhney, which highlighted provisions of the Act which activists felt were harsh against the poor.

Permitting the arrest of any person begging without a warrant, taking the person to court, conducting a summary inquiry and detaining the person for up to 10 years are all among the 25 highlighted provisions.

“These provisions cannot sustain constitutional scrutiny and therefore deserve to be struck down,” said the passed court order.

However, the judgement will only be limited to the state of Delhi. Begging still remains a criminal offence in other states of India, barring Bihar.

India’s 2011 census suggests that there are only 370,000 beggars and vagrants in the country and their number has been on the decline, with a 41 per cent reduction since 2001 when the number of beggars was pegged at 630,000.

Activists have however pointed out that these numbers are severely under-reported and the state has no clear-cut policy when it comes to identifying beggars and vagrants.

After sustained pressure from activists, the Indian government had planned to do away with the draconian Beggary Act. A new law was being contemplated by the Central Government which outlined the rights it could give to destitutes while demanding help from the state.

The new legislation called the Persons in Destitution (Protection Care and Intervention) was also circulated amongst all state governments for suggestions.

The draft law claims to “provide for the protection, care, support, training and other services to all persons in destitution” and refers to destitution as a state of poverty or abandonment, arising from economic or social deprivation that requires support including age and infirmity, homelessness, disability and sustained unemployment. However, the Indian government stopped discussing the new bill in 2016.

"We can't have laws which penalise people for being poor. The existing laws crack down on those who are powerless and face discrimination. We need a law which respects the dignity of the destitute and acknowledges their potential," said Mohammed Tarique, coordinator of Koshish, an organisation which works on Homelessness and Destitution. Tarique played an important role in helping draft the new law. 

The auther is a writer of the Indian Express and currently a fellow at the China Asia Pacific Press Center.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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