Monday, January 7, 2013

Begging for Attention

The Twelfth Five-Year Plan has called for a holistic national policy on beggars.
When 286 inmates of the Beggars’ Rehabilitation Centre in Karnataka died over a period of eight months in 2010, for a brief moment the issue of beggars – who are visible and yet invisible in our cities – came into focus. Now the Twelfth Five-Year Plan has called for a national policy on beggars and a model central law on begging that could be adopted by the states. Social activists working with the very poor and beggars have long been advocating a holistic policy on the issue of beggary, rehabilitation of beggars and repeal of laws that are used to victimise not only beggars but all those who do not fit into the “respectable” category.
However, before the first steps are taken to formulate any rehabilitation programme or even a policy, it is essential to have reliable data about beggars and what they need. In 2010, the government admitted in the Lok Sabha that it had no authentic data on the number of beggars in the country. Making an estimate of the number of people involved in beggary will not be easy. Those who end up begging on the streets do so because of desperation. But they are not a fixed population; many drift in and out of begging.
In many ways, beggars are the most “rights-less” persons in India. They are unwanted and stigmatised and in the eyes of the middle class they beg because they are “lazy”. There is little understanding of the desperate circumstances that force the very poor to beg. Beggars end up being victimised and hounded on three accounts – in terms of the provisions of the law applicable, the so-called rehabilitation that is more like punitive incarceration and the ineffectiveness of the programmes aimed at ameliorating their conditions.
First, the existing laws meant to deal with beggars that end up punishing them and criminalising their activities rather than rehabilitating them need to be changed. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (BPBA) 1959, which inspired a number of similar laws in at least 18 states, has come under fire from many quarters for its regressive, brutally punitive and “custodial” features. It penalises itinerant street entertainers, homeless workers, the disabled poor and sexual minorities and migrants who may have come to the cities to escape from poor living conditions in the villages. Although an expert committee appointed by the Bombay High Court following a public interest litigation (PIL) in 1990 looked at the actual implementation of the law on the streets by the police and thereafter called for its abolition, the 1959 Act remains on the statute books.
Second is the inadequacy of the rehabilitation policy. Of late the media has focused on how inmates – mostly young women and children – have been “escaping” from remand and shelter homes where they are detained pending court trials. The conditions in these so-called homes are so demeaning that the inmates prefer to run away rather than stay there. The conditions in the beggars’ homes across the country would be much worse given their complete helplessness. Media and research reports have detailed the entire legal process from the time beggars are picked up from the streets to when they are fined or herded into beggars’ homes. By all accounts, most of the beggars’ homes extract free coerced labour and vocational rehabilitation remains only on paper. The landmark Ram Lakhan vs Statejudgment by the Delhi High Court in 2006 categorised the motives for begging and said those who beg to survive reflect the failure of the state. More memorably, it said that to subject such people to “further ignominy and deprivation by ordering their detention in a certified institution is nothing short of dehumanising them”.
Third, while there are no central schemes specifically aimed at beggars, there are a number of poverty-eradication and employment schemes targeting the very poor that could accommodate them. However, almost all of them demand documents and identification papers that a majority of the beggars do not have. Beggars are obviously not a monolithic section and the various strands within these communities have different vulnerabilities and needs. Child beggars are particularly vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds (especially by “professional” begging gangs), as are the sexual minorities, particularly the transgender.
In a society where it is accepted that transforming a city into a “world class” one means herding the unwanted sections like beggars and the marginalised either into custody or sending them to live on the outskirts, there is unlikely to be much sympathy for beggars. Also, the existing insensitive police and criminal justice system is going to take a long time to acknowledge that beggars too are citizens with rights. Against this background, the Twelfth Five-Year Plan’s call for an integrated scheme for their rehabilitation is welcome. As a first step, the government should initiate a nationwide survey to collect reliable data on the number of individuals forced into beggary.