PUCL,December 2004
[Published in PUCL Bulletin, January 2005]

Criminalising poverty
Houseless and anti-beggary law in Delhi

-- By Pushkar Raj, General Secretary, PUCL Delhi

The houseless carries different images in the eyes of common people. For some they are no more than beggars, while others treat them as anti-social elements, Chor-Badmash. Looking at their clothes and the way they are forced to live, there would hardy be anyone who would think of them as similar to any other people trying to earn their livelihood. The law of the land too is much more stringent and rock insensitive in looking at these houseless people. It is an irony that, while the law should have been so enacted as to protect these vulnerable citizens, in fact, it is the biggest adversary of the houseless.

When the law defines, the begging  (Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959) it also takes into its gambit, the houseless; assuming that all the beggars are houseless or all who are houseless are no more than beggars. As per the act, that was imported to Delhi on 2nd June 1960, the begging is defined as soliciting or receiving alms in a public place and includes any one having no visible means of subsistence and, wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner, as makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms. This broad definition allows the police to arrest anyone who looks poor and unfairly targets those who are houseless and live in public places such as pavements or parks.

PUCL-CSDS survey research on houseless in Delhi
shows that out of estimated 140,000 houseless in Delhi,  nearly 23 percent among them hardly get work for 15 days, while another 33 percent get work for anything between 16 to 25 days. Only 44 percent among them manage to get work throughout the month. These are the people who are the real target of the anti-begging squads raids which are frequent. Reporting on the process of arrest, a Report on Begging in Delhi observes as follows

The normal routine of the anti-begging squad is to go out every morning to places like the vicinity of railway stations, the inter-state bus terminus, temples and mosques. The squad usually consists of two men constables, two women constables and two or three of their henchmen who are long term residents of the Certified Institutions. They seize such persons as they think are beggars- not many are caught while actually soliciting alms- and push them into the van and then move on for the next quarry. If the victim asks why he has been seized or where he is being taken or struggles against being pushed into the van, the captors lathi (bamboo stick) comes down heavily on him .

These people (beggars) as is warranted by their existential state are unable to shave and bath daily. What makes the situation worse for them is continuous sweating and soiling with dust and dirt through out the day for their earnings. No wonder most of these people  look dirty and their dirty appearance makes them highly vulnerable to arrest by the police. Thus the frequent misuse of the inhuman law by the authorities compels thousands of `working men to remain under the constant fear of beggary arrest.

Once arrested for begging the person is presented before the court. If the court is satisfied that the person is not likely to beg again, it may release him/her on a bond. Since there is no free legal aid available for beggars at present, they are unable to defend themselves and a majority of them are convicted.  A convicted beggar can be detained in a certified institution for a period of up to three years and no less than one year (Begging Act, Chapter 2, section 5). When a person is convicted for begging for a second or subsequent time, he/she can be detained for a period of up to 10 years (Chapter 2 subsection {(6)3}!

The convicts are sent to certified institutions, known as Beggar homes, at present 8 in number, with the total institutional capacity for 1810 persons. Though these reform institutions are aimed at providing vocational training and enabling the convict to earn his living after his release, their actual conditions remain abysmal in this field as 73 percent of their grant is spent on administration and maintenance while training and reform part gets only 23 percent of the budget . The living conditions in these institutions are far from satisfactory and similar to the government run uninhabitable ran baseras (night shelters) with added burden on the inmates who are treated as convicts detained for a specific period and for a `crime that is embedded in existential circumstances. 

Is being houseless a stigma?
Yes it is for, for the majority of the Delhiwala would consider them as  an anti-thesis to their beautiful city. For police, they are a nuisance and a law and order problem. Police treats them with lack of social sensitivity. As pointed out earlier, the law too would have them banished.

Are all the houseless beggars? No. The findings of the PUCL-CSDS research survey shows that these pavement dwellers are not a bunch of anti-social elements. Majority of these payment dwellers work and earn to support their families either living with them or elsewhere. A Large numbers among them  (about 30 percent) are engaged in manual labour, while about 25 percent are rickshaw pullers, about eight percent work in small shops like tea stall, juice vends or small road side food stalls etc. Rest of them are engaged in various other kind of activity like handcart pulling, rag picking, catering work and several types of other casual work. Only nine percent among them live by begging chiefly due to infirmities of body or mind.

The PUCL-Delhi demands that the government of Delhi by immediately repealing  the anti-beggary law begins its initiative in bhagedari (slogan of the present government underlining concern for the citizen and his participation in good governance) in the field  of civil liberties also where by the laws that violate the basic human rights of the most vulnerable sections of the society are banished from the statue books.

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