It is a beggar’s pride that he is not a thief, or so goes an old Japanese saying. In Hyderabad, over the next two months, a beggar will be treated no different than a thief, though. The Hyderabad Police has banned begging in the city’s streets from November 8 to January 2018 because the activity “diverts the attention of the vehicular traffic” by causing “annoyance and awkwardness” to the public, “in an indecent manner”. Coincidentally, the city is getting a makeover as it hosts Global Entrepreneurship Summit later this month—US president Donald Trump’s daughter and advisor, Ivanka, is expected to be among the attendees as is PM Narendra Modi. To be sure, such flushing out of the destitute is common globally—Delhi did it before the 2010 Commonwealth Games as did Beijing before the 2008 Olympics and Rio de Janeiro before the 2016 Olympics.
What Hyderabad, and each of the other cities that did this, ignore is that begging is a socioeconomic reality that can’t be wished away. Sure, there are elements of crime attached to the activity, especially with the begging mafia involved. Children and the maimed do get exploited and trafficked to prop up this evil. But temporary solutions such as a ban—violators will be arrested under anti-begging laws and penal code provisions relating disobedience of civic authorities—are likely to result in bad optics rather than any meaningful resolution. Both Rio and Beijing had drawn severe flak from international rights agencies, and though Delhi tried to do it more discreetly, it was roasted in the international media.
Begging, however undesirable, can’t be wished away or swept under the carpet. Anti-begging laws in most part of the country are more punitive than remedial—they treat begging as a cognisable and non-bailable offence, with the provision that a summary inquiry may be enough to ascertain guilt and hand out punishment. The third offence onwards, a person may be sentenced to 10 years in an institution as provided for by the state, including two years in jail. A better way to deal with it will be to ensure the destitute are rehabilitated or given some form of subsistence support. The model law that the Union government brought earlier this year asks the state government to set up well-equipped rehabilitation centres where beggars can be counselled and provided vocational training. This may impose a burden on the state coffers, but the PR disaster the state risks by doing nothing or banning beggary is arguably a much bigger imposition.