An old Japanese proverb goes, “It is a beggar’s pride that he isn’t a thief.” It can be read both ways—only a beggar would be proud that he isn’t a thief (yet) or better a beggar than a thief. But one look at how states treat beggary should make it clear that as far as the law is concerned, there is hardly any difference—begging is a crime in 20 states and two Union territories, an analysis by Nyaaya.in, published by IndiaSpend, shows with 18 of the 20 states treating even people who “look poor”, such as homeless workers and nomadic tribes, as beggars.
The web that anti-begging laws in the states together spin is dense—Karnataka and Assam keep religious mendicants out of the the definition of beggars while Tamil Nadu does it for street artists, bards, jugglers and street magicians; 16 states order detention of dependants of a persons deemed a beggar. Anti-begging laws are more in the punitive vein than remedial—many states 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.
Similarly, most anti-begging laws have harsh detention provisions for disabled beggars, too. In a nutshell, the laws believe extreme poverty must be punished rather than alleviated. Against this backdrop, the Union government’s model law, Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill 2016 adopts a more humane—and distinctly rehabilitative—approach.
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While the model law starts by not criminalising beggary—except for repeat offences—it also asks the state government to set up well equipped rehabilitation centres where beggars can be counselled and provided vocational training. It also talks of outreach campaigns that identify destitute people and impart awareness to wean them off begging. Given how any kind of confinement becomes twice the burden on the government—apart from providing for the destitutes, the maintenance of certain standards at these facilities/’homes’ is also borne by the exchequer—rehabilitation seems a better way to go about checking begging.