The government’s focus needs to be on rehabilitating and giving beggars a way out of their lives. Kejriwal’s plan to make the city beggar-free might do the opposite.
New Delhi: It was back in 2000 that Karnika Sawhney had filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking basic human and fundamental rights for the beggars in New Delhi. With the apex court and subsequently the Delhi High Court seized of the matter numerous directions have been issued in the years since and the Delhi government and various departments concerned have made various submissions and announced schemes for the welfare and rehabilitation of beggars. But a recent announcement by the state government to make Delhi a beggar-free city suggests actions thus far have been largely ineffective in tackling the problem and have in fact become problems unto themselves.
The proposed move, as reported by a national daily, has come in for severe criticism from those working towards the rehabilitation of the beggars. As homeless rights activist Indu Prakash Singh of Shahri Adhikar Manch said: “I am opposed to the beggar-free Delhi drive because it treats them like criminals.” He said rather than putting people in beggar homes, which were nothing but jails, the government should make efforts to skill them so that they can earn a livelihood and lead a life of dignity.
“Unless and until you decriminalise beggary you will not go anywhere. Schemes for making Delhi beggar-free will remain non-starters because you are empowering the same police and the Department of Social Welfare, which has all these years persecuted poor people and put them behind bars because they were found begging on the streets,” he said.
Singh said soon after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had taken over in February 2015, he had urged him to make Delhi the first state to repeal the “most archaic and unconstitutional” The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959.
“Due to this hundreds of homeless are arrested and many lives get wasted, I had written, while also quoting how Justice BD Ahmad of Delhi High Court had in his order of 2006 observed that there was the ‘doctrine of necessity’ whereby if a person is poor and has nothing to do but beg, then there is no crime in that.”
Singh said he again met Kejriwal in June this year to demand that the functioning of the Department of Social Welfare be improved. “I told him that in the last 15 years I have found people in this department to be the most uncouth, rather than rehabilitating anyone, they have been persecuting them. It needs a complete overhaul. He assured to [sic] look into it.”
But a month later, Singh said the announcement of the scheme to make Delhi beggar-free has surprised him. “I have urged Arvind not to go ahead with the new drive to make Delhi beggar-free. I have spoken to him and also written to him that this drive would be counter-productive. And if it would happen, we will oppose it.”
Rehabilitation, the key
Senior advocate Ashok Agarwal of civil rights organisation Social Jurist, which has fought many a legal battle for the poor, said the sore point has been rehabilitation of the beggars, which has been a failure. “There is no rehabilitation for them. The government does not have time for these issues. They do not have a practical approach toward resolving these issues. They do not look into the modus operandi of begging.”
At Kashmere Gate, he said, “you can see the number of beggars increasing by the day. Now the queues of those who seek alms outside places of worship there are becoming longer. Nobody is concerned about changing the lives of these people. The courts can only ask for rehabilitation. There is more crime in some of these homes than outside.”
Pointing to how 7-8 lakh children are still out of school in Delhi, Agarwal said “this is the hard reality of the society”. Blaming the bureaucrats, politicians and NGOs equally for the appalling condition of the homes, he quipped that “they are all interested in rehabilitation of their own”.
Incidentally this is not the first time that the impact of beggars on the city’s appearance has been spoken about. In response to a PIL in which beggars had been described as the “ugly face of the nation’s capital” and as people who caused “road rage”, the Delhi High Court had directed the Social Welfare Department to remove them as they “obstruct the smooth flow of traffic” said a senior government official.
It is clear that the data of the Delhi government and the Centre does not match when it comes to the scale of begging in Delhi. The numbers are clearly on the higher side as begging is also becoming a lucrative business for some.
A survey by Delhi University and the Department of Social of Welfare had revealed that many educated and able-bodies people had also taken to begging to supplement their incomes. Of 5,000 people surveyed, six were found to be graduates and 796 those who had studied up to Class 12.
A major drawback with existing laws is also that they do not differentiate between the poor and beggars. Anyone who appears to be a beggar, be it a ragpicker, a poor vendor or a migrant labourer, can get picked up and be lodged in a beggar home for up to three years at a stretch.
It is for this reason that activists and lawyers are demanding that instead of being incarcerated, beggars be provided vocational training so that they may find gainful employment.
As Singh said, there is Section 363 A of the Indian Penal Code which deals with organised begging, including crime related to it such as kidnapping/maiming of a minor for purposes of begging and so there is an immediate need to repeal the Bombay Act.
Moreover, huge sums, which could be utilised for skilling the beggars, have been spent in the past on running these homes. A report in 2015 revealed that Rs. 25 crore had been spent on the running of just 5 of the 11 beggars homes in Delhi over the last five years .Similarly, the manner in which beggars are picked off the streets and put in the homes has come in for severe criticism from those who believe that such action is inhuman and deprives them an opportunity to serve their families and also puts them at a disadvantageous situation since the condition of most of the rehabilitation homes remains pathetic.
Another area of concern has been the piecemeal approach of various agencies towards dealing with the issue. Recently in June, the crime branch of the Delhi police, which is a key unit for nabbing wanted criminals, was tasked by the commissioner to assist in catching beggars.
In January 2015, the Delhi Police had also contemplated conducting DNA tests on people begging on the streets after a complaint was forwarded to them from the Prime Minister’s Office about women often found begging with children who did not resemble them. But the plan did not take off due to lack of legal backing.
Then in December 2015, the Delhi police also announced that it would take to fingerprinting beggars in order to put a check on organised gangs which kidnap children and push them into the trade. As per the plan, the detained beggars were to be taken to Sewa Kutir in Kingsway Camp where their fingerprints and photographs were to be taken and recorded in a database.
On the other hand, the New Delhi Municipal Council had in January this year announced a scheme to employ beggars and rag-pickers for managing its toilet complexes in order to extend institutional help to them.
In 2009, the Delhi government had also launched a helpline number (1098) to rescue child beggars. The following year it had also installed biometric machines at beggar homes to check repeat offenders and maintain the database of beggars. However, in the absence of a concerted efforts all these schemes have either flopped or met with only limited success.
With government programmes yielding little, individuals have taken to use of face recognition technology to assist in recovery of children kidnapped by begging gangs. One such app, Helping Faceless was launched by Shashank Singh, who was himself almost kidnapped when he was a small boy. His app now encourages people to click the photographs of street children and upload them or match an existing photo from the police database to a child they may been seeing on the street every day.
A new bill
The large amounts of public support for for decriminalising beggary and repealing the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, under which a person found begging can be sent to a shelter home or even jail without trial, has led the Centre to draft ‘The Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill 2015’, which looks at begging as a social issue and not a crime.
As per this draft bill, on which the views and suggestions of the states have already been sought, destitution refers to a state of poverty or abandonment, arising from economic or social deprivation and persons in destitution include the homeless, beggars, people with physical and mental disabilities, the old, infirm and others who are in a state of poverty or abandonment.
The bill also calls upon the state governments to establish rehabilitation centres for the care, protection and vocational or skill development training of such people.
But as Singh, who was part of the consultative process in preparation of the draft of this bill, put it: “We do not know when the bill would be introduced. It provides a solution to the problem by talking about converting homes into reform and vocational institutions. My big worry is if the bureaucrats who have all this while made money out of these institutions would allow the new law to succeed.”