Recently, the Indian Delhi High Court has struck down the Begging Act, 1959 passed by the State of Bombay and has continued to exist in as many as twenty states and two Union Territories.
Provisions of Begging Act
- It criminalises begging and gives power to the police to arrest individuals without a warrant.
- It gives the magistrate the power to commit them to a ‘certified institution’ i.e. actually a detention centre for up to three years on the commission of the first ‘offence’ and up to ten years upon the second ‘offence’.
- These certified institutions have absolute power over the detainees and they can extract ‘manual work’ from them which if disobeyed could land the detainee in jail.
- It allows the law enforcement agencies to compel the beggars to provide their fingerprint, violating their privacy and dignity.
- It authorises the state to detain the ‘dependent’ people i.e. children of the beggars over the age of five.
Definition of ‘begging’
The Begging Act defines ‘begging’ as “soliciting or receiving alms, in a public place whether or not under any pretence such as singing, dancing, fortune telling, performing or offering any article for sale”.
- The vague definition of begging gives unchecked power to the police to harass citizens. It exposes the prejudices of the law that is aimed to target the groups and communities whose itinerant patterns of life do not fit with the mainstream stereotypes of a settled job.
- It reflects the mindset of lawmakers to eradicate people from public places who look or act differently than mainstream people.
- If an individual is caught under the act, the concerned detainee goes underground due to the provision of detention in a certified institution.
- During 2010 Commonwealth Games, the Delhi Government combed off thousands of beggars from the street who were treated as embarrassing in front of the foreign dignitaries. Such operations are a part of regular routine during national events such as Republic Day or Independence Day.
- In Harsh Mander v. Union of India and Karnika Sawhney v. Union of India case, the Delhi High Court held that begging violated Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution. Government contented that it does not intend to criminalise ‘involuntary’ begging, but the Court observed that the definition of begging under the legislation does not make any such distinction and hence, it is completely arbitrary.
- Under Article 21, it is the duty of the State to provide basic necessities for survival to all its citizens and in case of its inability to discharge these obligations, the state cannot criminalize the most visible and public manifestation of its own failures.
It is being hoped that other High Courts would also follow suit and strike down such inhumane laws which impinge upon the basic human rights of our citizens. We should remember that a court may strike down an unconstitutional law but it cannot reform our society, therefore, it is the task of our Legislative Assemblies to replace the punitive structure of the Begging Act with a new set of measures to focus genuinely on the rehabilitation and integration of the most marginalised sections of our society.
Source – The Hindu
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