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Poor And The Law: A Critical Analysis

Poverty is a universal phenomenon as no country is spared from the same and also no country is been able to assert to be entirely unimpeded by poverty. When we talk about poverty and poor a very basic image comes to our mind, that, a person who is poor would not have enough money and resources to sustain a good life likewise, poverty is a condition in which a person is so deprived of basic necessities that he/she may not be able to survive after a period of time or might die due to hunger.

This is an economic perspective. But from the legal lens we can see that poverty is more than just money and food. When an individual is poor he has to go through a lot of issues such as they are deprived of basic Human Rights, they are unaware of their own rights, they are exploited by the other sections of the society, social inequalities, lack of education and opportunity. Over the period of time India as a nation realized that poverty cannot be defined by focusing on only one perspective that is 'income poverty' but it should be 'human poverty' i.e. in a broader perspective.

One of the worst aspects of being poor is being the victims of crimes and being part of that criminal system itself. Poor people live their entire life in fear that they are more likely to be the victims of the crimes than the affluent. Since law punishes the one who has committed the crime it does not seek that the criminal was poor and certain factor would be there which forced him/her to be a criminal. In this way a lot of times the poor are not just victims but also criminals. This type of involvement of the poor in crime can be prevented by taking certain measures such as education and employment.

The government of India and world organisations at large are working to eradicate poverty at large. India as a welfare state is committed to the development of its people. Although there are provisions in the constitution of India for the betterment of the poor but just a law cannot suffice the purpose it has to be implemented with due respect and responsibility. There are certain laws made by legislation which are beneficial for the poor such as child labour prevention law, labour laws, laws against gender discrimination and many others.

The study deals with certain research questions which are as follows:
  1. How lack of legal awareness in the poor leads them to exploitation?
  2. Why poor people are more prone to crimes also why this section of the society is more involved in crimes?
  3. How the legal empowerment of the poor can be done?
  4. What are the measures undertaken by the Indian government to curb poverty and issues related to that?


Poverty is a denial of choices and opportunities; it is a violation of human dignity. It means lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or a clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one's food or a job to earn one's living, nor having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It means susceptibility to violence and it often implies living on marginal and fragile environments, not having access to clean water and sanitation.

Statement of commitment for action to eradicate poverty adopted by administrative committee on coordination [20 may 1998]

Poverty can be classified into two types i.e.
  1. Relative poverty:
    the poor people falling under this category are not deprived of everything but are not able to enjoy the standard of living like the average people in the country, this may be permanent but mostly it is changeable with the growth in the economy.
  2. Absolute poverty:
    as the name suggests when the household income is below certain level that makes it nearly impossible for a person or a family to meet with the basic needs of the life. In this state of poverty even if the country is growing it does not affect the individual who falls under this category.

From the above definition it is very clear that poverty is a violation of human rights. Human right are the basic rights inherited by the person and belongs equally to all human beings. The principles of equality and non-discrimination address one of the root causes of poverty. Discrimination can be both cause of poverty and barrier in alleviating poverty.

For example in India there was varna system which did not allowed a particular section of the society to grow in terms of education, the work they do, their standard of living and which all together led them to be in a particular situation forever i.e. poverty. They remain poor for a long long period of time and were not able to develop. This varna system brought many evils to the society such as untouchability, slavery, division of labour, child rights violation, etc.

The caste system in India is still responsible for the number of poor our country have. The poor are deprived of even basic necessities like shelter, food, money, clothes and job. But according to Amartya Sen, poverty is the denial of capabilities and freedoms to achieve what each individual is capable of. Sen argues that a person's freedom to achieve good health requires firstly, that their health is not harmed by others (negative freedom) and secondly, that an enabling institutional environment for good health is created by societies and governments (positive freedom). [1]

Also one of the major issues of poverty in India is that India is a highly populated country which grows more than her economy. A country can only have enough and not excess resources and India is no exception. Due to certain customs in our country even today the rural people believe that bigger the family means bigger income but this is not the case. The big family eventually leads to reduction in per capita income values and consequently lowering of the standard of living. When more people chase the limited resources this is certain that more people would be able to grab the resources. The resources here can be in the form of employment opportunities, education, food, etc.

Quality education leads to better job and then better standard of living. A poor individual hardly gets basic education so having a better job is a far reaching goal. In the rural areas people do not send their children to school instead of that they take them to the fields and make the work to earn their livelihood, the consequences of that is children will also have a greater chance of living in poverty. Education if provided in poor it is more inclined towards the male section.

If an individual is poor and above that if its a female then chances of her being educated are still very low as compared to the male of her same age and class. But after the independence government of India and constitution makers were aware that females should have rights to be developed in every aspect. Provisions were also made for the children to get basic education till a certain age. Providing quality education is observed as globally-recognized solution to the cycle of poverty.

Apart from all these issues there are many other consequences a poor suffer. Like homelessness because they don't have a proper shelter to stay, lack of medical and healthcare services as many poor die of chronicle diseases because they don't have money to get a treatment for the same and this leads to early death, exploitation from the affluent section of the society as poor people easily falls into the trap of these higher class people, due to lack of money and job the poor often suffer from stress too which makes them even less productive and thereby making poor people more poorer, criminals often lure the poor with money to commit a crime for them and be the part of their heinous activities in the society.

Poverty In India

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.-Adam Smith

India is acquired with two things in plenty i.e. population and poverty. One can call India as a human resource rich nation with a huge population but if the population trend kept on increase then undoubtedly India would be called as poverty rich nation. Poverty in India is deep rooted and 200 years British rule further intensified it.

Historical Roots of Poverty in India
In the colonial period, India had a huge number of poor people but a few were hungry that means people had enough resources to fulfil their basic needs and requirements and poverty became one dimensional phenomena i.e. only about hunger and food. But as we all know that poverty is a multidimensional phenomena and food cannot be the only concern India was termed as poor.

Then the British introduced rigorous tax collection policies which are very detrimental for the poor like the one who were not able to pay the taxes due to any certain reasons like famine, either their lands were captured or they were made the slaves of the British officers till the repayment of the taxes which was a vicious cycle. Also zamindari laws were enacted which further made the things worse. In this way the middle class became poor and the poor became poorer. Poverty however was neither inevitable nor natural, being direct consequence of British rule especially the land revenue policy. Law and order was further was never in the favour of the poor section of the society.

In the post independence era a new class of poor came into picture which are 'urban poor'. Even though there were urban poor before they were not a big issue as it became after independence. After independence the cities were expanding at a fast pace and people's migration from rural areas to urban increased in search of job or in search of better standard of living. As more and more people make this migration the space left to accommodate them becomes less and less. Given the present lack of affordable housings the migrated people started informal settlements which are also termed as slums and the lack of opportunities and skill training of the working age population compelled them to be in this situation.

Constitution of India for the Poor
The question of the role of law combating poverty is a primary question. Constitution of India is the supreme commander of law in India and the makers of constitution had this concern that each and every citizen has right to be developed and uplifted and hence they had made the provisions for the same. Though poverty as a term has not been mentioned in the Indian Constitution, the Preamble, the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy stand affirmation to the welfare state mode.
  1. Article 21 Protection of life and personal liberty:
    No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Here life is not just survival it means to live with dignity. Also right to life is a human right and not even state[2] can take this right away from its citizens unless procedure established by the law. It also includes right to livelihood as held by the SC in Board of Trustees of the Port of Bombay v. Dilipkumar Raghavendranath Nandkarni[3], supreme court held that right to life under article 21 also includes right to livelihood.

    Further in Pavement Dwellers Case [4]court observed that:
    The sweep of the right to life conferred by Art.21 is wide and far-reaching. It does not mean, merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of death sentence, except according to procedure established by law. That is but one aspect if the right to life. An equally important facet of the right to life is the right to livelihood because no person can live without the means of livelihood.
  2. Article 39A [5]- Equal justice and free legal aid:
    The State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities. Every party to the case has lawful access to the court to present their cases but the proceedings require payment of court fees and assistance of skilled lawyer.

    The poor cannot easily afford the hefty fees so an amendment was done in article 39 of COI which states that legal system should provide free legal aid to those who need it so that they get equal number of opportunities to present themselves in the court and the justice is therefore not denied to any citizen by the reason of economic disability.

    Sheela Barse vs State of Maharashtra [6]:
    in this case the court observed that it is necessary to provide free legal aid to the poor who are arrested to represent themselves in front of the judiciary as it their fundamental right under article 14 and article 21, apart from Article 39A. The court also held that the prisoners should be allowed to meet any lawyer appointed by the legal committee with respect to any subject matter.
  3. Article 15 and 16:
     these articles of COI provides the power to the state to make special provisions for the backward caste and sections of the society. They contain provisions for reservation for socially, educationally and economically weaker section of the society in state owned institutions and government jobs.

Crime And The Poor

The link between poverty and crime traces its existence way back in the times of Aristotle when he stated that Poverty is the parent of crime. This statement aptly summarizes how the two concepts are intrinsically linked. The link can be studied in two ways:
  • The poor are likely to be criminals
  • The poor are the victim of crimes
There is a vicious cycle between poverty, unemployment and crime. Due to poverty a person is mostly deprived of good education, poor education lead someone to unemployment and further the individual enters into crime. The inverse can also be true such as a person with criminal record may not get job which would lead him to remain poor. Hence this cycle does not allow poor to get out of this chain and their whole life is doomed. So let's first discuss about the former concept of poverty and crime;

Why poor are more likely to be criminals?
Before delving into this aspect we first need to understand the relation between poverty and education. Poor children hardly have any access to good education and due to this adults of the same section are deprived to fixed and proper jobs. Even if children go to schools in their early ages the situations drag them out of the school and make them work for the livelihood of their family which led them to remain in the same stratum as their parents were.

Due to poverty people are mostly deprived of many things which others are utilizing. This becomes one of the reasons why poor indulge into such criminal practices as they want to acquire those opportunities and materials which they were deprived since a long time. So they take help from unlawful means to fulfil their desires which led them to commit crimes like burglary, theft, robbery, assault, rape and attempt to rape, and many more. The legal system looks at them from the criminal perspective as they had committed the crime and satisfied every condition for being a criminal and do not see them as victims of poverty.

Why do poor become victim of crimes?
The poor are more likely to be the victims of the crimes than other economically sound individuals. They become victims of the crimes sometimes because of the greed of other people; they are used as a means. For example if a drug peddler wants to supply the drug he/she might need someone who could take the risk to face legal proceedings if caught, so he might offer a certain amount of money to a poor individual and the poor would agree to perform the crime.

When they are caught they don't have money to represent them in the court and hence has to face conviction. Sometimes they do the crime when they know the objective of the person asking and sometimes they don't even know that they are going to be the part of the crime scene.

Even one of the honourable SC judge once said:
The main cause of crime is poverty. As long as you have poverty, you'll have crime. Most of the people you will find in jail in India, in America or in any other country are poor. Unless you create a social and political order in which everybody gets decent life, which means proper employment, proper income, healthcare, education and nutritious food for the children, you cannot abolish crime. Our aim is to create a more politically and economically favourable situation for all in the country[7].

The poor can be of different income levels, different caste, class, or anything which distinguishes them but they all suffer from one thing that is poverty itself. People are very clear about what they want it is the policymakers or the law makers to make them legally empowered. Protecting poor from crime is not only sending habitual offenders to the prison but also to lower the term of punishment for them.

Legal Empowerment Of The Poor

Legal empowerment of the poor can be recognized as the process of systemic change by which the poor are protected and enabled to take the help of law to protect their rights and interest as citizens. The main contributor to the legal empowerment of the poor is strengthening of the rule of law. Legal empowerment of the poor involves the legal reforms which improves the legal and economical condition of an individual which further helps them to alleviate or escape from the trap of poverty.

The first and the most important step that could be taken to provide legal empowerment to the poor is:
  1. Rule of law and access to justice:
    legal empowerment is not possible when, de jure or de facto, poor people are not able to access judicial system. However equitable access to justice is hardly possible but where the benefits of just laws and rules are enforced and enshrined in the society, the development and benefits are beyong the measurable limits. Legal empowerment in this domain must include:
    1. To make sure that everyone has the legal identity which is registered at birth
    2. To ensure law reforms biased against the rights, interests, and livelihoods of poor people
    3. To ensure that the courts and tribunals gives due consideration to the interest of the poor individuals.
    4. To establish a control of state over the police to ensure that police helps the poor and do not exploit them.
    5. To institutionalize access to legal services so that the poor will become more aware about the law and to utilize them aptly.
  2. Property rights:
    ownership of the land is itself a type of human right. There are four pillars to these rights which are set of rule which tells about the relation between people and assets and puts obligation on them, system which governs the same, a market where the exchange of assets can take place, and an instrument of social policy. The law enforcing authorities should make sure that all the four pillars are intact. Poverty is reduced when the poor have fungible rights over their land and other assets in the most functional and transparent manner. If the government of India will ensure the right to land to every individual then the problem of slum dwellers will come to end and the standard of living of the people will automatically enhance.
  3. Labour rights:
    the poor mostly who are unskilled labours spend most of the time working hard at the workplace and giving the sweat and blood to the work did not get enough to survive. We can calculate the assets individual has but it is high time we realize the labour or the human capital be recognised. They are working poor and the nature of economic activity they perform is the source of their poverty. Since the poor are mostly depend on their labour, the state should ensure minimum income, health and security, pension and total number of hours. There is a need to protect their labour and right to work should be recognized with proper legal support. Also the gender based discrimination should be discouraged in the labour rights and must be given equal rights and opportunities to the women workers.
  4. Business rights:
    the poor can not only the labourers but also a small entrepreneur. Legal empowerment for them would be access to protections and opportunities such as the ability to contract, to make deals, to raise investment capital through shares, bonds, or other means, to contain personal financial risk through asset shielding and limited liability, and to pass ownership from one generation to another. These rights may not be equally relevant to every entrepreneur but they are instrumental in poverty eradication and economic development. Guarantee basic business rights, including the right to vend, to have a workspace, and to have access to necessary infrastructure and services (shelter, electricity, water, sanitation). Strengthen effective economic governance that makes it easy and affordable to set up and operate a business, to access markets, and to exit a business if necessary[8]

The government of India should go through certain law reforms which could legally empower the poor.
  1. The very first thing government can change is the change which it can make in itself. It means it can avoid being the part of the problem itself. The government should insure transparency among its own functionaries i.e. by curbing corruption. The under the table money giving taken must be stopped so that poor people do don't become the victim of the same. The rich people by bribing the government employees mostly take advantage of their position and money power and the poor people suffer this. For example, there is land which government has decided to allocate to the poor but some rich person would ask the authorities to give the same land to him as he bribe them. This is just not a hypothetical situation it mostly happens either directly or indirectly. Hence the government should take care of the same.
  2. The government should emphasis the concept of education for all. Though the same is given in the constitution of India but has still not fulfilled completely.
  3. The government with the help of judicial system must work for reducing the time gap to access proper justice for the needy. The huge pile of unsolved and even unheard case is a big hurdle before the judicial system. Although government of India has introduced the very concept of door to door judicial assistance known as Gram Nyayalas but it is limited in its own and is still not able to meet its own goals.
  4. The concept of free legal aid is actually not free today. Although constitution of India has given this concept for the betterment of the needy and downtrodden people in Article 39A but the concept itself cannot meet its purpose. It is the sad reality that today most of the legal authority is not ready to help people without a monetary value and here are additional charges given to sitting judges and advocates so that they listen to their problem and proceed their cases further. Hence there must be an authority which can check the actions and performance of the judicial system in order to ensure fair, fast and free legal empowerment.
  5. Government should also introduce certain programmes with the help of legal authorities and law universities to enhance awareness among poor people regarding their rights and process involved in getting access to justice so that their exploitation is curbed. Unless the poor do recognise their rights they cannot be safe in the society as anyone who has money and has a little knowledge of law can make a fool out of them and can gain out of their condition. This has to be stopped otherwise India as a country will continue to be on the list of poor countries.
  6. Apart from all of the above suggestions government should implement policies and programmes for its people according to their own nation and not just coping the policy from some other country and implementing in our own just because that was a success in that country. The need of our country can be different from other country.

Poverty and law are closely linked together. Poor people being the most deprived of their needs and education are mostly the part of a vicious cycle of crime and legal proceedings. Many a times it is seen that people just for their own greed makes the poor a pawn. Since the poor don't have enough resources and money they agree or sometimes they unintentionally do something which makes them fall into a legal trouble.

Since they have committed a crime they are convicted and sent to jail. To protect the interest of the poor section of the society the state decided to make provisions for them with respect to free legal aid. But mostly lawyers or adjudicators don't want to serve people freely. So one of the requirements for the empowerment of the poor is a stringent legal system which does not only enacts law but also makes them implemented.

Since poverty like pandemic has no boundary is a universal issue so the international organizations are also contributing for the upliftment of the poor and making provisions such as human rights for the whole world. Likewise government of India should also make certain provisions which can help for the betterment of the poor people.

  1. The Constitution Of India [as on 9th December 2020]
  2. Angus Maddison, The historical origins of Indian poverty, v. 23, n. 92 PSL QUARTERLY REVIEW, [S.l.] JEL: I32, N15, O53, 32 Jan. 2014
  3. Peter Cuthbertson, Poverty and Crime: Why a new war on criminals would help the poor most, CIVITAS, 1, July 2018
  4. Naresh C. Singh, Legal Empowerment of the Poor: Making the Law Work for Everyone, Vol. 103 Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law) 147, 150, 2009.
  5. Lucy Williams, Law and Poverty: The legal system and poverty reduction, Zed Books Ltd 2003
  6. Kellogg, N., 2018. Top Effects of Poverty | the Borgen Project. [online] The Borgen Project. Available at: [Accessed 11 January 2021].
  7. 2005. Law and Poverty: The Legal System and Poverty Reduction. [online] Vol. 40 No. 1, pp.99-102. Available at: [Accessed 11 January 2021].
  1. To define and understand
    1. Poverty and its aspects
    2. Certain legal reforms done to prevent the same
    3. Human rights regarding poor
  2. To study about the historical background of the legal empowerment of the poor.
  3. To understand that how poverty is a universal issue and measures took by the international as well as Indian administration.
  4. To study and understand that why poor people are the major part of the criminal section and socio economic view of the same.
  5. To study regarding the steps to be taken to check poverty at a large scale and make poor people aware about their rights.
  1. Poverty and human rights : is poverty a violation of human rights? CESR Human Rights Insights No. 1, 2, Dec 2009
  2. the state is defined under article 12 of the COI.
  3. Board Of Trustees Of The Port Of ... vs Dilipkumar Raghavendranath, 1983 AIR 109, 1983 SCR (1) 828
  4. Olga Tellis & Ors vs Bombay Municipal Corporation & ors. 1986 AIR 180, 1985 SCR Supl. (2) 51
  5. INDIA CONST. art. 39, amended by The Constitution (forty second) Act, 1976
  6. Sheela Barse vs. State of Maharashtra, 1983, 1983 AIR 378, 1983 SCR (2) 337
  7. THE TIMES OF INDIA, [last visited date 20 December 2020]
  8. Naresh C. Singh, Legal Empowerment of the Poor: Making the Law Work for Everyone, Vol. 103 Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law)
    147, 150, 2009.

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