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Criminalizing Begging: A Socio-Legal Analysis Of The Bombay Prevention Of Begging Act, 1959

Everyone has a right to live with dignity under the Indian Constitution. Anyone who asserts their rights to adequate shelter, food, clean drinking water, education, and health care should not be subjected to criminal prosecution. The anti-begging legislation in India appears to have been enacted on the notion that persons voluntarily embrace idleness and that idleness is a possible cause of annoyance that can escalate to criminal activity.

Begging, on the other hand, is a societal problem that should not be deemed criminal. Even the most seriously ill, lepers, physically and psychologically handicapped beggars, and even those who are not dangerous or intimidating, could be detained and deported. Begging is defined in the law in an imprecise and unclear manner, resulting in an identity complex.

The anti-begging law, on the surface, criminalizes people for who they are instead of for the activities in which they are involved. Therefore, the research question which this law review article seeks to answer is Whether the criminal law is penalizing the act of begging or someone who is indulging in begging and is the state right in criminalizing it?

Part-1 of the article includes the brief overview of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959.

In Part-II, the historical background of begging has been discussed, how it existed in different forms and the historical development of Indian Begging Act.

Part-III briefly discusses the Indian Act, that is the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1989 and the discrepancies in it and how the punishment provided in the act is not proportionate. It also discusses how criminalizing begging violates the fundamental rights of the beggars. Lastly, it argues how the rehabilitation provided to beggars after their arrest is a failure.

Part-IV of the article gives recommendations and solutions for abolishing Begging such as decriminalizing the entire act, reformation of the convicts etc.

Lastly, the article ends with a conclusion that penalizing beggars is not at all a realistic method to deal with the problem of begging and thus the state should not penalize begging and the beggars and work on their reformation.

Definition Of Begging

Under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 the definition of Begging is as follows:
  1. Soliciting or receiving alms, in a public place whether or not under any pretense such as singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing or offering any article for sale;
  2. Entering on any private premises for the purpose of soliciting or receiving alms;
  3. Exposing or exhibiting, with the object of obtaining or extorting alms, any sore, wound injury, deformity of diseases whether of a human being or animal;
  4. 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 soliciting or receiving alms;
  5. Allowing oneself to be used as an exhibit for the purpose of soliciting or receiving alms;
But does not include soliciting or receiving money or food or given for a purpose authorizes by any law, or authorized in the manner prescribed by [the Deputy Commissioner or such other officer as be specified in this behalf by the Chief Commissioner][1]
  1. Types Of Beggars

    In general, street beggars are classified according to their capabilities and infirmities, which are determined by the manner in which they earn their livelihood from the streets. There are three types of beggars in India, each of which has its own classification: those who do it as a vocation, those who are forced to do it, and those who do it as a result of circumstance.

    The first category, that is those who chose begging as a profession have connections to a number of interested and powerful organizations, which work to ensure that these beggars are acquitted when they are apprehended. The second type of beggars consists of kidnapped children who have been subjected to violence, persecution, and exploitation. The third category includes persons who are weak, vulnerable, living on the edge of their lives, and fighting to find a means of subsistence. It is the state's failure to provide these beggars with a dignified living.

Historical Development Of Begging

Beggary is an ancient social phenomenon that has existed for thousands of years. Giving donations to beggars was and continues to be regarded as a moral deed by many people throughout history. In Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, the term "bhiksha" (alms) is commonly used to refer to charitable contributions. Buddhism, on the other hand, sees the begging of noble men as a good thing. Muslims also adhered to the concept of 'Zakat,' which translates as charity.

Begging has been criminalized from the beginning of colonial construction. Traditional communities have long accepted and tolerated those who rely on begging for their livelihood. Beggars were perceived differently during colonial administration in India. In the 1920s, begging was first made illegal in British India. In 1959, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act was updated and made it illegal to beg in all Indian States, even Delhi.[2]

In England, the 'Vagrancy Act 1824', which was passed over a century back and deals with beggars and the homeless, is still in effect. The Indian begging act is based on the England's Vagrancy Act of 1824.

Beggary was a common practise in the Middle Ages, not only in Europe but also in Great Britain. Providing assistance to those in need was regarded as a saintly and noble act. One of the goals of earlier regulations in England was to keep workers from migrating to other parts of the country. The goal was to compel those who were physically capable to work. Only the disabled were given the opportunity to beg.

According to the Government of UK, begging is an antisocial, disruptive and unacceptable practice and should be suppressed. Begging became illegal in England once the Vagrancy Act of 1824 was passed. Almost all Indian legislations, including the anti-begging statute, is based on English law. Although there is no compelling situation in India to criminalize the act of begging, still the state considers beggars as criminals.

Begging is a necessity, because it keeps people from having to resort to criminal activity such as theft, extortion, or robbery in order to get what they require. Additionally, when a beggar passively requests assistance, a passerby who believes that beggars are unworthy of assistance may be angered. As an alternative to criminalising the beggar, it is possible to just disregard such a request.

It's an epiphenomenon to criminalize passive begging for the sake of shame and inconvenience[3]. In the general public, it fosters a culture of intolerance toward those who are less fortunate. Unless a beggar is hostile, abusive, or a stalker, the mere existence of his/her in a public location does not constitute a criminal violation. It is necessary to develop socioeconomic remedies for those who are destitute.

British authority in India required a work force for wartime efforts in the 1940s. People were asked to abandon their agricultural jobs and relocate to urban areas. Following the war, there was widespread retrenchment. People who had migrated to cities found themselves without work and had lost their former jobs.

They were stranded with nowhere to go. Beggary was originally identified as a public health issue. In the beginning, West Bengal made a law. Then, Mysore and Madras did the same thing. Since India's independence in 1947, beggary laws have been in effect in 22 of the country's states and union territories.

Indian Law And Its Discrepancies

In India, there really is no national law that addresses the issue of beggary. While there has been debate regarding anti-begging law in general, the BPBA 1959, has gained the greatest attention recently, owing to its implementation in the city of Mumbai and its extension to Delhi in 1960. The anti-begging law in India asserts that it was made to stop people from begging, as well as to put them in jail, trial, and punish them if they break the law.
  1. Bombay Prevention Of Begging Act, 1989.

    There is no national Act on beggary, various states and Union Territories have utilized the Bombay Act as the foundation for their own legislation. The Act defines a beggar as: someone 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 exist soliciting or receiving alms[4].

    Begging under the Act includes:
    soliciting or receiving alms, in a public place whether or not under any pretence such as singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing or offering any article for sale.[5]

    The Act empowers officers to make arrests without a warrant. It allows courts to sentence anyone to prison for up to 3 years for their first "offense" and up to ten years for subsequent "offenses." Prior to that, it requires people to disclose their fingerprints, which breaches their privacy and dignity. It also permits the imprisonment of the beggar's family as well as the segregation of children above the age of five. Authorized institutions or detention centers have total control over inmates, including the right to reprimand them and force them to perform "manual work." Disobedience to the regulations of the institution may end in imprisonment.
  2. Lacunae In The Indian Legislation

    1. First and foremost, the spirit of the laws is severe, making the poor legally culpable for their condition, which is a defect in the law by definition. The term "beggar" is a fuzzy concept that is susceptible to misapplication. When reading clause (a) Soliciting or receiving alms, in a public place whether or not under any pretense such as singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing or offering any article for sale,[6] there is also the possibility of misunderstanding the definition. This includes a wide range of vulnerable persons from all walks of life. Street performers, small merchants, and persons who are striving to make ends meet by their art or skill are all subject to detention under this legislation.
    2. Second, Clause (d) is a contentious point of disagreement. It says, people 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 exist for soliciting or receiving alms[7]. Everyone who lives on the streets, regardless of whether they are beggars or not, is subject to arrest for begging under the rules of this provision. An identity complex is caused by someone who appears "poor" and "desperate," and hence falls under this category. As a result, a labourer, shoemaker, rag picker, or tourist who has never begged before might be picked up at random and put to a beggar's detention centre.
    3. It is tough to tell the difference between beggars and those who are not. Anybody who 'looks' like one who is unorganized, messy, and poorly clothed is regarded to be one. Worse, homeless individuals and landless laborers who travel to bigger cities in search of work, poor people, and various sorts of people all fall under the term of "beggars," and distinguishing between the two categories is extremely difficult. The anti-begging act results in cruel treatment of persons who are purportedly impoverished and deprives them of their rights.[8] According to this statute, the police perform raids to randomly select beggars, who are subsequently prosecuted in a special beggars' court and, if guilty, are sentenced to incarceration in a certified facility. Ironically, the anti-begging statute lumps together a diverse group of persons (street entertainers, mendicants, tiny sellers, pavement-dwellers, and migrants) who may indirectly solicit charity under the guise of 'begging' under one banner.
    4. Although it is illegal to beg on the streets, charitable organizations are permitted to solicit donations. Ironically, it is against the law to proclaim "I am homeless- please help me," but it is entirely legal for charitable organizations to say "Help homeless" and gather funds in public.
  3. Punishment Is Not Proportionate

    Begging is punishable in India, and the punishment is severe. It can be as lengthy as ten years, which is the same amount of time as the sentence for grave offenses such as attempted murder and rape. Almsgiving is a common practice in our society, and as long as it is voluntarily, it should not be considered unlawful. If soliciting and accepting alms is considered as criminal, then how come the donor is exempted? In 2009, the Delhi Traffic Police issued a notification under the terms of the Motor Vehicle Act imposing a Rs.1000 punishment on anybody who gave money or food to beggars sitting at traffic signals. The element of discrimination evident in penalizing the beneficiary with a lengthy period of jail or imprisonment while freeing the donor with only a minor penalty cannot be overlooked. Despite the fact that begging and almsgiving are voluntary behaviors, the existing law prosecutes the weaker and more vulnerable with harsh sanctions while seeing the donor with favor. It basically amounts to taxing beggars for their misfortune and efforts to survive. The implementation of India's anti-begging legislation to the destitute is unjustifiably severe and harsh. Denying beggars their "right to free speech and expression" would be equivalent to denying the disadvantaged the capacity to express themselves in society. It might be regarded as an infringement of fundamental rights.
  4. Constitutional Perspective

    The Indian constitution states that everyone has a basic right to life, which includes the "right to live with dignity." This right is outlined in Article 21 of the constitution. People's fundamental rights to "live with dignity," as well as their "freedom of expression and expression," are violated by the punitive components of anti-begging legislation. It is the anti-begging statute, which falls outside of its jurisdiction in violating natural rights, equity, and the notion of justice for everyone.
  5. Rehabilitation Or Incarceration

    Detaining someone against their will in order to rehabilitate them is an inhumane solution to the problem. It is possible to prevent any further commission of any undesired conduct by detaining someone, but this is not a permanent solution. The reasons for which a person begs can be many, including psychological, coercion, social, religious, economic, addiction, unemployment, broken family.[9]
If a person says that he or she was forced, duped, or forced to do something, he/she must not be held because imprisoning the person will be useless. Similarly, if a person is found begging as a result of his or her addiction to liquor and drugs, sending him or her to a certified institution that does not offer detoxification or addiction treatment would be counterproductive. The growing problem of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the problem of begging, is a complicated one.[10]

In accordance with the principle 'purpose of beggar homes,' beggars are trained and placed in jobs. The Delhi High Court observed that to subject them to further ignominy and deprivation by ordering their detention in a Certified Institution is nothing short of de-humanising them[11]. The Delhi HC also observed that it is nothing but imprisonment, unless in the rehabilitation centers the beggars are provided with decent job-oriented training[12].

The occupational training given in rehabilitation houses is also a significant drawback, as it is quite inadequate. There is no market for, or even a market link for, the things that are created or taught there. The training is neither job-specific nor market-specific in nature. As a result, they are once again forced to rely on begging for survival as a means of surviving. The entire process of reformation and rehabilitation is therefore a failure.

Recommendations for abolishing begging:
  1. Decriminalize the Act:
    The beggary legislation that criminalizes poverty is abhorrent and unnegotiable. The thought of punishing the crippled, the indigent, and the downtrodden as if they were criminals is disgusting. Not only is there a lack of attention to detail in anti-begging laws, but there is also custodial confinement and the indiscriminate use of arrest authority. The first and foremost solution to the problem is to decriminalize the law.
  2. The Issue of 'Custody' is Debatable:
    Due to the fact that it is a kind of punishment, it should not be applied in the context of solving social problems. Because of the incarceration, the beggars have been deprived of many of their rights. It is necessary to put an end to the practice of holding beggars in detention. Beggars are not culprits or conspirators. The anti-begging law appears to be a lifesaver for the state, which has been unable to provide state welfare services to the poor. For failing to protect their right to life, the state should refrain from punishing the beggars in any way.
  3. Need for an Amendment:
    The anti-begging legislation does not only apply to beggars, the elderly, and the infirm, but it also applies to those who sell items in public or who perform skills on the street. In light of India's many cultures and customs, it is necessary to examine both the legislation itself as well as the profiles of those who are covered by it. The definition of begging in the legislation is indifferent, and the law struggles to keep pace with India's cultural and customary way of life, and the state is indifferent towards it.
  4. Reformation and Rehabilitation:
    It is preferable to provide beggars with a direction and a set of options in the manner of drop-in developmental homes, vocational training facilities, and occasionally free counseling in a non-custodial but controlled atmosphere rather than imposing official rehabilitation programs on them. The imposition of programs on individuals in a welfare state is unethical, particularly when the schemes in question are deemed insufficiently beneficial. The most effective approach is to persuade and assist the beggars toward a more fulfilling way of life.

In the words of Rani Jethmalani, a human rights campaigner, the aggressive anti-beggar legislation is aimed at wiping the desperately poor off the city's radar so that society can continue to neglect them without it pricking its collective conscience.

There are many ways to deal with the harmless beggar who has no other choice but to beg for money. Punishing beggars is not one of these ways. In order to help beggars, become more self-sufficient and stop begging, their rehabilitation should be less aggressive and more therapeutic, and it should also be based on the needs of each person.

Even while these may appear to be expensive and time-consuming, they are likely to be less expensive than recruiting additional police officers and creating more jail facilities for detention of beggars. Such therapy addresses the fundamental reasons of begging, with the goal of ultimately eradicating begging while also safeguarding the right of persons to live in dignity and freely in their daily lives.

  1. Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, s 2.
  2. Haller, Criminalizing of begging is anti poor The Hindu (25 January 2009)
  3. J Waldrons, Homelessness and community (2000) 371, 392
  4. Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, s 2(d)
  5. Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, s 2(a)
  6. Ibid
  7. Supra note 7
  8. U Ramanathan, Ostensible poverty, Beggary and the Law (2008) Economic and Political weekly
    accessed 6 May 2022
  9. S Chauhan, Anti-Begging Legislation of India: From Responsibility to Repression (2014)
  10. Ramlakhan v State AIR 2007
  11. Ibid 10

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