Life comes full circle, on some counts at least! My son was nine years old when he asked me about the young kids who would beg or do acrobatics to then ask for money at red-light crossings. After a few minutes of, ‘where are their parents?’, ‘why did they run away from home?’, ‘how can anyone force them to beg?’, when he couldn’t wrap his head around this complex mix of poverty, hunger, lack of shelter, and maybe a lack of any other options, he said…., “why can’t the government take them off the street and let them live a ‘normal‘ life?”
Even to a young mind, uninitiated to the ways of the world, this appeared unfair and it was a problem fit only for the government, to address.
This, till I met Tarique, who had a chance encounter with a group of homeless citizens sleeping under the open sky, about a decade ago. In the harsh Delhi winter, those men wrapped in newspapers told him, ‘sometimes we suspect we’re sleeping next to a dead body. We still don’t budge all night’…..Another person added, ‘we sleep knowing we may not wake up at all tomorrow‘. This was both unbelievable and unacceptable to him, and became the seed of Koshish. He passed out of the Tata Institute of Social Studies (TISS), Mumbai and founded Koshish in 2006 to work with the issues of homelessness and destitution.
OUR PERCEPTION OF BEGGARY
Let me speak for myself, I’ve looked at beggary as a matter of choice and the result of unwillingness to work, particularly with the able-bodied. Also that these pesky people beg to buy drugs, alcohol. That they are part of a murky world and the source of public nuisance. Its likely that several urban people think like this.
Oh yes, the Police does take them away… “What have I done? Please let me go. My father is sick and my children are too young….. my wife can not look after every one alone. I have not done any wrong. I was only taking the food that was being distributed”, pleaded Raghu. 30 year old Raghu from Dasna in Uttar Pradesh and has been living in Delhi for 20 years, working a a casual labour. His parents, wife and 4 children live with him, all dependent on his earnings. There are days when he doesn’t get work and is forced to take food that is distributed as charity. But this doesn’t happen often. He has been working as a mason from the tender age of 15. His parents are quite sick and he barely makes ends meet with their treatment and the education of his children. On an Amavasya (moonless) night, some people were offering food to poor people. In his attempt to save money, he decided to take the food for himself and family. That is when he was picked up from Wazirabad by the raiding team. His wife had to take loan of Rs.5000 from a private money lender to get him out. It will probably take him years to get out of that debt now.
WHO THEN ARE THESE PERSONS ON THE STREETS?
And how much ‘choice’ do they have in their lives? These people include:
- Abandoned – old and differently abled persons or leprosy affected whose poor families couldn’t afford their treatment or upkeep
- Mentally ill persons – abandoned also by their poor families
- Young children who run away from their houses due to ill-treatment, differences with family, sexual abuse or substance-abuse
- Migrants – the poor in search of a better job
- Persons facing gender-discrimination, violence, religious discrimination, sexual minorities (transgenders)
More often than not, they are from amongst the poorest classes of society, and live a very lonely, unfulfilled life. Homelessness and destitution are two sides of the same coin. As a rule, they are all struggling to survive. Many of them had an identity back in the village, but when they run away or are abandoned, the family doesn’t give their ration cards for example, so they don’t even have a piece of paper to prove they exist, leave aside getting their old-age pension for example.
WHO IS A BEGGAR IN THE LAW?
Believe it or not, anyone on the street who looks like a beggar is a beggar! Beggary has been defined in law to include people with mental illness, disability, the elderly, leprosy affected, hawkers of small fares, rickshaw-pullers, people selling nimboo-mirchi, street performers, fortune-tellers, dirty looking persons on the street, and so on.
Further, anyone who can be considered a beggar, can be arrested, implying that beggary is a crime in Law. No warrant or evidence is required for arrest, their ‘appearance’ is reason enough. The definition of begging in the law leaves people on the street completely at the mercy of the raiding police officer and government officials.
THE BOMBAY PREVENTION OF BEGGARY ACT 1959
The Beggary Prevention Legislation is in force in more than 20 states of India. Criminalization is a central feature of this law, which enables the police and govt officials to arrest a person. Their judgement is adequate, no warrant, evidence or witness are required by law.
A person detained for beggary (first time) gets between 1 and 3 years sentence in Beggars Homes, which are special certified institutions established under Beggary Legislation. The law permits punishment for the family and dependents of the accused for a similar duration. They can all serve sentence if a family member gets on the wrong side of the law! If the person is detained more than once, punishment is anywhere between 3 and 10 years. Compare this with the punishment for a person who forces others to beg, the maximum term they can get is 3 years.
If person suffers from leprosy, disability, mental health issues or is visually challenged, then detention can be extended for an ‘indefinite period’. This is when the law acknowledges such persons to be ‘incurably helpless’. Helplessness is responded to by punishment. So effectively, the State portrays that it is detaining the person to help. Another view is that State sees this person as a potential repeat offender due to his/her helplessness and therefore awards punishment in advance. Can anyone, under the law be punished like this for years, merely on the assumption that crime may happen? Aren’t there mental hospitals or social welfare programs that are supposed to take care of such persons?
Further, the onus to prove innocence (that one is not a beggar!) is on the accused. Arrest leads to custody. The bail process is complex and costly. The cost of this legal remedy and release starts at around Rs.5000, enough to push the family into a debt trap. A kind soul, a lawyer Koshish works with, does this for free!! He says Rs 2-5 is what it costs. So clearly there’s a thriving market for lawyers offering their services to such persons for bail.
Koshish, which works inside Remand Homes has developed a protocol of ensuring release on the basis of case-history of the person detained, without having to engage a lawyer to represent the accused. In consideration of the credibility of their work, Courts accept their Social Investigation Report to judge the case.
The way beggary is defined in this law, makes it inherently anti-poor and the focus is on punishment and not rehabilitation. Almost sounds like poverty is a crime!
How technology works against the homeless… Anand was being questioned by the police in a raid, and unlike the others, he was vocal and picked a fight saying, ‘I only sell plastic toys, and cannot be arrested’. That altercation was his crime. He shouldn’t have raised his voice. The police did have the law behind them in arresting him, and now they also had reason to beat him up. He was brought to the remand home in Kingsway Camp, North Delhi. He couldn’t prove his identity to them. His streak of bad luck ended when Koshish wrote a Special Investigation Report on him that established that the he is not a beggar, and explained his context. He was a landless labour in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, and agricultural distress forced him to move to Delhi to look for work. He couldn’t leave his wife and son behind as they would starve, so they accompanied him. They live on the road side with him. This report enabled his release and he was released as he wasn't considered an 'offender' in law. In a year's time, he was arrested again in a raid. This time, he was told he’s a repeat offender and his punishment term starts from 3 years! What did we miss here? It happened so that his biometrics were taken when he was arrested first, and even though he was released as he didn't deserve to be booked, the database classified him as a repeat offender as his biometrics existed in the system.
WHAT DOES KOSHISH DO?
Koshish engages with the Police, Bureaucracy, Political leaders and the Judiciary at one end, and the homeless on the other.
Their objective is to ultimately have the law repealed. In the interim, they do counseling of people in shelter homes and elsewhere, legal aid, medical referrals, reintegration with family, vocational training, finding jobs and capacity building of institutional staff and police through trainings etc,. on the larger question of law and policy.
Koshish looks at these people as having a context, a past, a home that was, a family. They discourage the police for making random arrests and focus on rehabilitation, making sure people find means to get back to their families.
My favourite was their training to people in shelter homes, on how to deal with the police… “keep quite if they raid to avoid arrest; if they’re picking you up anyway, don’t resist; be very polite and don’t hit back if they beat you up; gently tell them you know your rights, so no case is made against you; if a case is still made, call Koshish for legal aid”.
Coming back to my son’s question, what stops the Government from taking care of these people and letting them live a life (of dignity)?
The govt. looks at beggary, homelessness, destitution as law and order issues. If social security and welfare systems were to function, the homeless would not be subjects of the law and order department. Tarique points out quite poignantly that the issue of homelessness and beggary are linked to the failure of the State on several counts – mental hospitals, National Leprosy Mission, Healthcare facilities for the poor, for example. This is a classic case where the victim gets punished. There is complete lack of justice in how the law is framed, and clearly the State needs to change its attitude. For that to happen, it is equally important that we as an aware society inform ourselves and change our attitude first.