The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act:
- The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 is in force in Maharashtra and 19 other states and two Union Territories (where the States/Centre have extended the law to).
- It criminalises:
- begging (receiving alms in a public place)
- occupations of nomadic communities (singing, dancing, fortune telling and performing)
- street commerce (offering any article of sale)
- Delhi had also adopted provisions of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act criminalising begging in the national capital.
- Several beggars have been thrown into jail in the capital under the law.
Challenge to the Act:
- In 2009, activists working with homeless people challenged the validity of The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (extended to Delhi in 1960) before the Delhi High Court.
- In August, 2018, the Delhi High Court came out in favour of the petitioners and struck down Delhi’s anti-beggary law.
Begging decriminalised by Delhi HC:
- The Delhi HC held that the government has the mandate to provide social security for everyone, to ensure that all citizens have basic facilities; the presence of beggars is evidence that the state has not managed to provide these to all its citizens.
- It found most provisions of the Act violated Article 14 (equal protection of law) and Article 21 (the right to dignity) of the Constitution and held that “a person who is compelled to beg cannot be faulted for such actions in these circumstances”.
- All provisions of the Act providing for arrest or detention of persons found begging were thus struck down – The court declared 25 sections of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, which have been extended to Delhi, as “unconstitutional”.
A model law to rehabilitate beggars:
- The Union Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment had in 2016 drafted ‘The Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016’.
- The Bill sought to decriminalise begging and rehabilitate beggars and homeless people.
- The bill defines destitution as a “state of poverty or abandonment” among the elderly, infirm, homeless and disabled people.
- It directs states to identify such people and provide them shelter, health, counselling and employment services.
But the law was not brought in:
- However, the Bill did not make it to the Parliament, and centre left it to the states to bring in their own legislation.
- Delhi HC’s recognition that destitute persons have equal rights to dignity revives the possibility of enacting the Persons in Destitution Model Bill into law.
Evolving thought towards beggars:
- The Bill and the High Court judgment reveals evolved State’s attitude towards destitute people: from criminalizing them to recognising their Constitutional rights to social programmes and rehabilitation.
Result of state and civil society coming together:
- This change is the result of a decade-long partnership between civil society organisations (CSO) and state officials, which has led to a drastic reduction in arrests on Delhi’s streets.
- According to the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) records, the average arrests per month dropped from more than 100 in 2014-2015 to about 12 per month in the first half of 2016-2017.
- This is significant compared to an estimated 12 people arrested daily between 1995 and 2000, many of whom weren’t released for about 10 years.
Role CSOs are playing:
- A decade ago, CSOs like Koshish began providing detainees legal, counselling, employment and repatriation services, which expedited releases and reconnected some people with their families.
- They communicated the causes of arrests and conditions of poverty to officials through filing social investigation reports.
- Their reports showed that detainees were seldom provided information on their arrests and abused.
Infrastructure could be used differently:
- Established under the Act, Delhi has 11 remand homes. Each home has one superintendent and welfare officer, and a number of caretakers and cooks.
- About 35 lakh were being spent on these rehabilitation homes every year.
- Delhi HC striking down most provision of the Act leaves open how to use the infrastructure established under the Act.
- There is an opportunity now to repurpose these institutions: from incarceration to rehabilitation, via social protection and vocational programmes.
Conclusion – bring model law and harness civil society strength:
- Through the consent of the courts, civil society organisations have offered counselling, employment, and aftercare servicers which have resulted in declining arrests.
- Effective coordination between state and civil society and the change in government attitudes to the urban poor can be harnessed by transforming the destitution Bill into law.
- This would formalise arrangements between state and civil society that have already proven to be successful.
GS Paper II: Social Issue