India's war on its poor

"They forced us to sit naked in a row and splashed a mug of water on each of us". Bashirabi is a poor vegetable vendor who was waiting to get a train home to Nagpur when she was detained and sent to a Beggars Home.
Mohammed Tarique Vijay Raghavan
3 October 2011

On the 18th August Bashirabi, a 55 year old woman, was picked up by the police at one of Mumbai’s railway stations, charged under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (BPBA) and dragged off to court. In the court she was told she could either pay a fine of Rs 1,000 or stay at a Beggars Home for a week; not having the money on her, she ended up in a Beggars Home. Bashirabi is in fact, a poor vegetable vendor who was waiting to board a train to go home to Nagpur after being discharged following six weeks of hospitalisation for a skin ailment. The police, going by her dishevelled appearance and the scars of her illness, assumed she was a beggar and neither they nor the court paid any attention to what she had to say, "I requested them to allow me to make one phone call, so I could seek help from Leslie Pereira, the social worker who had helped me get admission in the hospital. But I wasn't even allowed that”. 

As Bridget Anderson has argued on openDemocracy, vagrancy and anti-beggary legislations in India are a colonial hangover, historically used as a tool of social control over the 'unruly' and promoting unequal labor relations. The BPBA has also been adopted by other states in the country, including Delhi and Gujarat and twenty states and two union territories have anti-beggary or vagrancy legislation. 

There are three ways in which the BPBA criminalises a person: by definition, as a beggar; being dependent on a person who is convicted of beggary; and, “employing or causing persons to beg or using them for purposes of begging”. As Ramanathan points out, the Act actually criminalises ostensible poverty by defining begging (in section 2(1)) to include: “Soliciting or receiving alms in a public place, whether or not under any pretence of singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale”; “entering any private premises for the purpose of soliciting or receiving alms,” or “exposing or exhibiting wounds, injuries or deformities to ‘extort’ alms, or allowing oneself to be used an exhibit.” It extends the exercise of coercive authority even further because ‘begging’, according to the Act, also includes “having no visible means of subsistence and, wandering about or remaining in a public place in such condition or manner, as makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms.” 

Regular raids are conducted by the police in Mumbai and the beggars’ homes staff in Delhi to ‘pick up’ beggars under the BPBA. In the course of our work with homeless and destitute populations, we have found that nearly 70 per cent of those arrested in Mumbai are homeless working people who get 'picked up' by the police during raids and 'night rounds' in an effort to keep the city 'clean'.  It is significant to note to note that the Beggars' Squad of the Mumbai police is attached to Azad Maidan Police Station, in the upmarket South Mumbai area, the seat of government power with a high concentration of the elite and foreign tourists. During these raids, any person who ‘looks like’ a beggar is arrested, without a warrant, and brought to the court for a summary trial where they receive contempt rather than justice. 

A central assumption underlying and legitimizing the penal treatment of the poor is that most people who beg are part of organised gangs and criminal networks. However, our own experience highlights the fact that hardly any arrests of alleged begging racketeers are made under the BPBA: in reality it is the working poor, destitute and homeless or poorly housed people, especially the aged, the abandoned, the disabled, the mentally ill, persons affected with leprosy, drug dependents, the transgendered and eunuchs. The de-notified and nomadic tribes - communities formerly criminalised by the British - are particularly vulnerable because their occupations like fortune telling, snake-charming and street performances, have simply been rendered criminal acts. While the number of people living below the poverty line is still increasing, government continues to use such penal legislations to control, discipline and penalize the poor.  

Showcasing India’s ‘shiny side’ prompted the mass removal of the homeless and the destitute from the streets of Delhi prior to last year’s Commonwealth Games.  Prior to the Games, Delhi's (then) Social Welfare Minister Mangat Ram Singhal said of the 60,000 beggars estimated to be in the city by his department,  “Beggars are a nuisance, and begging has to be stopped. When we make Delhi a world-class city, it will be compared with other world capitals.” Mobile courts were introduced, which roamed the streets with plainclothes police, issuing on-the-spot detention orders without any legal representation.  

The fate that awaits those sent to Beggars Homes is often beyond belief. Back to Bashirabi: she shared a room with 75 beggars in miserable conditions. She reported that in addition to being forced to clean toilets, the women in her barrack were bathed like animals: "They forced us to sit naked in a row and splashed a mug of water on each of us". The women suffered beatings and very poor medical care for many of the malnourished inmates who suffer from communicable diseases like TB.  It should come as no surprise then that there have been mass deaths in some institutions. In Bangalore, India’s info-tech capital, the death of 286 inmates of a Beggars' Rehabilitation Centre, ‘under mysterious circumstances’, over a period of just eight months was uncovered just last year. While a senior Minister resigned and other officials were suspended, no accountability has been established and nor have systemic reforms been institutionalized, let alone the offending legislation being scrapped. 

In the state of Maharashtra, once detained under the BPBA, the detainee is made to work under the pretext of vocational training, as agricultural labour on large tracts of land attached to the Beggars’ Homes and paid wages of five rupees a  day. The price to be paid for being homeless and without regular work in the city is forced labour with sub-human wages; punish and ‘teach’ the indigent to become industrious labour. 

This legislation undermines India’s post-colonial liberal-democratic structure by posing obvious threats to key fundamental rights such as the right to a life with dignity, equality before the law and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention. These violations have been highlighted by higher courts: a decade ago, the Delhi High Court noted that a committee appointed by it had found that in some homes beggars “are administered beatings by the caretakers to break and subjugate their will. The committee also found that ferocious dogs which have been kept by the caretakers have bitten a number of inmates.” But as Bashirabi's story  and the deaths in the Beggars Home in Bangalore reveal, nothing much has changed. The law remains on the books and is still widely used. The BPBA is part of a series of repressive and anti-poor laws that systematically create urban marginality and exclusion, in violation of constitutionally protected rights. As Bashirabi recalled, “I have never gone through such a horrifying experience. I may come from a poor family, but never in my life have I been treated like a beggar. It is a blow to my self-respect.”  

India’s rapid economic growth has not just failed its poorest people, but has come at their cost. As Loïc Wacquant argues, rather than work-fare or prison-fare which the neo-liberal state provides to its urban outcasts, there is a need to rebuild the social and economic capacities of the state to care for its poor and marginalised citizens. At the very least, instead of detaining people in poverty in oppressive institutions, the emphasis should be on creation of open shelters, soup kitchens and other support structures which provide relief to people in distress. 

Megha, a homeless woman we met during our research, posed us a question: “The government treats us as if we do not exist. If we are poor, what are we to do? We work all day and still do not get paid enough to eat properly. We do not want comforts but to live.  Is this a crime?”. It is a tragic irony that a country that lays claim to global super-power status and a permanent seat in the UN Security Council maintains a punitive approach to poverty, criminalising rather than working to empower its poorest citizens.



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