Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.
Responding to a petition that wanted all beggars to be moved from traffic intersections, the Supreme Court rightly pointed out that it is a socio-economic problem that called for a humane and sympathetic approach, asking the Centre and state governments to ensure vaccinations for the homeless. There is no central law against begging, but 20 states and two UTs have their own anti-beggary legislation. Inspired by European vagrancy laws, the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act is the basis for these laws, which allow the police and social welfare departments to simply seize homeless people, or indeed anyone who looks destitute and send them to detention centres. Their rootlessness and lack of documents make it easier for local authorities to shrug off even nominal responsibility.
In 2018, the Delhi high court read down many sections of the Act, citing the rights to life, livelihood and dignity. The Centre, which earlier drafted a bill to decriminalise begging, had flipped its position to distinguish between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ begging. The high court had then pointed out that nobody begs out of choice or to shirk other employment. In fact, it takes great effort and makes little money, and it is grinding poverty, landlessness, discrimination, disability and the lack of education and employment that forces them to beg.
In these times of intense economic distress, destitution is bound to swell. Many better off citizens see people begging or hawking as eyesores, but they are a reminder of our abject failures of social protection. Vagrancy and need were once accommodated in our traditional ethos, through ideals of the bhikshu, or of zakat and charity – but even as those structures crumbled, the state and civil society have not stepped in to compensate. Until the economy can provide decent livelihoods to all, it is unconscionable to make criminals out of the poor.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.