The Delhi High Court has declared unconstitutional certain provisions of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, that make begging a crime. While India doesn’t have a central anti-begging law, most states, including Delhi, have modelled their anti-begging laws on the 1959 Act. A bench comprising of acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar said that “artificial means to make beggars invisible will not suffice” for eradicating begging. “A move to criminalise them will make them invisible without addressing the root cause of the problem,” the High Court said. Begging, for most beggars, is an act of survival. The act may seem obscene, juxtaposed against India’s economic prowess, but it is one of desperation. Criminalising begging makes way for the police, policy makers and others to push the most marginalised out of public spaces and turn a blind eye to the real reasons behind people turning to begging. Sure, there is a begging mafia, but it is the failure of the state that the fruits of economic growth have not reached many who are then co-opted by this mafia that exploits their desperation.
A Japanese saying goes, “It is a beggar’s honour that he is not a thief.” The Indian law—a remnant of colonial-era policymaking—doesn’t see much difference between the two. The court rightly noted that the root cause is poverty that has many structural reasons behind it—illiteracy, absence of social protection, caste-based discrimination, physical and mental disabilities and consequent isolation, etc, are some that the court listed. The law made no distinction between beggars and workers who were homeless, vagrants and even mendicants who beg for alms to fulfill religious obligations. The government should be framing policy to remedy the socio-economic ills that create beggars, not punishing people for falling victim to these. It must crack down on the organised begging racket lest decriminalisation becomes and incentive for it to exploit people without means.