Is beggary a crime? Or is it just a social issue that needs proactive government action? Whichever way you look at it, the fact remains that beggary - among the oldest ‘professions’ in the world – continues to thrive like bacteria despite multi-pronged efforts by the government and NGOs to eradicate it.
The Constitution of India guarantees citizens fundamental rights to life, dignity, speech and expression, education and information. All that applies to beggars as well and it is the government’s responsibility to help them exercise those rights. People choose to beg because of poverty and absence of any sustenance for their daily life. But when they find that there are many people who will provide them more than what they need, they become professional beggars. That leads to criminalisation with beggar mafias deploying children, disabled and the elderly to collect alms. The mafia inflicts cruelty on children while engaging them in begging.
In Tamil Nadu, the first legal effort to stem begging was taken in 1945 during the British Raj through the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Beggary Act. But efforts to address the problem of beggary began many, many moons ago. Tamil saint Tiruvalluvar, in his treatise on ethics, Tirukkural, strongly condemned beggary. He wrote a separate chapter headlined ‘The dread of begging’, which had 10 couplets. In verse number 1,062, the saint cursed the almighty for the prevalence of beggary in society. He said: “If some must beg and live, let the creator himself beg and die!’ In another verse, he said: “Better a million times not beg even of dear ones eager to give.”
The Prevention of Beggary Act that came into force during the fag end of the British era, provided for detention and employment of beggars and their dependents in work-houses or special homes, and for their custody, trial and punishment.
Begging shall carry a fine of up to Rs 50 or imprisonment that could extend to a month on the first conviction; on subsequent convictions, imprisonment could extend up to six months, the Act said. The law gave policemen liberty to arrest - without warrant - any person found begging; but not if a person has entered a private premises for soliciting or receiving alms, unless the occupier of the premises files a complaint.
Since the 1945 Act was focused solely on eradication, the State government in 1964 amended it to introduce a rehabilitation clause. In June, 1971, the government introduced a scheme to remove beggars from the social fabric and provide means to rehabilitate them. A beggar rehabilitation fund was started, which mopped up a decent Rs 1.09 crore. A scheme to rehabilitate lepers was also launched. However, in the later years, the scheme lost steam.
Much earlier, on March 1, 1954, a Government Care Camp was launched at Melpakkam, with 950 members (770 male and 180 female). Beggars convicted by judicial magistrates were housed in the Home that had free boarding, lodging, clothing and medical facilities. They were also given training in various trades like weaving, carpentry, pottery and tailoring.
Since then successive governments have introduced many schemes to address the root causes of beggary. At present, the State government is implementing a programme to eradicate juvenile beggary in association with an NGO. In 2007, the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, while disposing of a petition, directed the Madurai Police Commissioner to strictly implement the 1945 Act without waiting for further notification from the government. In 2010, the Chennai Corporation took an initiative to rehabilitate beggars found in the city. But it was not followed up vigorously.
The Juvenile Aid Police (JAP) in Tamil Nadu has been rescuing children wandering in public places and rehabilitating them. During the past six months, JAP rescued over 450 children. While half of them hail from other States, others are from districts in Tamil Nadu.
During 2012, the JAP rescued 1,056 children, most of whom were involved in begging. The JAP has been in place since 1960 and has been rescuing children working under hazardous conditions and reuniting them with their families.
So, can begging be ever eradicated? Let us look at it this way. The fight against corruption goes on at multiple levels and with varied intensities although it continues to survive. And there are countries that have managed to curb corruption to a great extent.
Similarly, if the Executive has the will, it can definitely find a way to deal with beggary. After all, beggars are a shame to any cultured society that has pretensions to modernity. They ought to be rehabilitated and ensured that they get to lead a dignified life.