For an Indian, it is perhaps too common a sight to find wandering beggars and homeless people in the crowded metropolitan streets that are perpetually choked with exhaust fumes and dust particles that never settle, starved and abused beyond what is considered to be humane.
Children, women are abused by sex traffickers and criminals who then make these helpless children beg on the streets, oftentimes by burning or disfiguring their faces to invoke more sympathy. These street rackets are intricate networks, its roots established so deeply in the slums of the metropolitan areas that uprooting them is almost impossible. But that does not and cannot, serve as an excuse for not trying. Beggars desperate for money, food, a shelter usually end up in brothels as sex-slaves or dismembered for illegal smuggling of organs.
The government, to take care of the escalating issue of beggars, enacted the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, in 1959, to better regulate and take care of the beggars. Several provisions provided under this Act, especially the ones that criminalise begging, violate the fundamental rights of the people. According to the reports online, many of these people that are “picked up” from the streets are not even beggars, are just homeless people who did not engage in begging of any sort. This points out a very disturbing provision under this Act, the very definition of what is begging to be extremely arbitrary and ambiguous, and essentially providing the police officer with the power to then define what he/she thinks begging to be. And this is when we’re considering that the police functionaries actually do this particular job since often times, the police officials do absolutely nothing, are oblivious to the fact that such an Act even exists. In fact, they receive absolutely no formal training whatsoever in this regards.
The point of contention is not that this Act should be scrapped, the point is to rather have the government take cognizance of this issue, made aware and made to act on it by the construction of rehabilitation centers and establishment of proper protocols for identification purposes. It is due to the government’s failings and shortcomings that there are still millions of beggars on the streets, many more on the verge of becoming beggars, which just serves as an absolute affront to its people who are coerced into such a life.
The Constitution of India endows its citizens with certain fundamental rights that cannot be encroached upon, even by the state or its functionaries. The question is that to what extent is criminalising or even taking away the only source of income from beggars reasonable. This Act would violate their right to life by snatching away their income source: if the government seeks to do this, it must provide with some alternate source of income to the competent ones, in other words, provide for employment opportunities to unskilled labour. However, the next question that immediately arises is that of wages. It’s not uncommon in India for employers to underpay their labourers, especially the ones engaged in manual labour.
This one time, curiosity got the better of me and I asked one such child why he doesn’t go to school. He took the money I had offered and skittered away without saying anything. The cab driver then explained that many of these children voluntarily do not go to school because begging pays better than an honest day’s work, and the school would just be a burden then, a logic that sounds very reasonable, at least when looked upon from the child’s perspective. It also then begs this pertinent question about the psychological damage that is inflicted upon the child, the child who thinks that this is what his life is supposed to be like.
The usual dilemma that an individual face is when a small child, with marred faces or missing limbs, turn up at their car windows, the choice of giving or not giving, the choice of being pro-begging or against it. But how can one turn away a small malnourished child with an empty stomach and empty eyes?
We have reduced their state to a level where we do not even consider them humans, or attribute such values to them. We have de-humanised their very existence because doing that would then provide for some sort of, no matter how skewed, explanation, an excuse, to then ignore them as they waste away, die on the streets, their cold bodies on the footpath discovered only when they stink, only when they cause inconvenience to the pedestrians.
It is perhaps a matter of utter shame that this particular topic does not even come up when one thinks of justice, the idea of which that seems to have a rigid framework of what it entails.
The word Justice includes everyone and its time we started treating them like their lives also matter.
By Vaishnavi Sharma
Vaishnavi Sharma is a student at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. Her entry was declared as the Runners Up for the Feature Writing Competition “Inking Justice – Express, Evoke, Engage” organized at Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai in collaboration with the Justice Collective.”