The Supreme Court has refused to accept the plea for banning begging in public places. A two-member bench, consisting of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah said the court would not take an “elitist view” and proscribe begging. The bench was responding to a petition filed by an individual that begging in the time of the pandemic was injurious to public health. Actually, there is no conclusive evidence that persons, who beg at traffic islands and other public places, are carriers of coronavirus and can, therefore, spread the disease. They are as good or as bad as political leaders in this regard.
The court has taken the more rational stand that begging has its roots in the socio-economic and cultural situations in which they operate. Nonetheless, there is a strong case for rehabilitating them for which the court has given a notice to the Central and Delhi governments, answerable within a fortnight. They would have to mention the steps taken to rehabilitate them and provide vaccination against Covid-19.
Begging is as old as humanity and it is viewed differently from culture to culture. The Buddhist tradition has it that Buddha died of food poisoning when he ate the rotten pork he received as alms. At the other end, the Sikhs consider begging as anathema to their religion. Begging is a universal phenomenon.
Though the scriptures prescribe that man should live by the sweat of his brow, they also mention the case of Lazarus, who longed to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Those days, the excommunicated, like the ones suffering from leprosy had no other option but to beg. That is why the bench declared, “No one would like to beg, if not for poverty”, forcefully but not convincingly. This is because begging is a very complex subject that cannot be explained easily, let alone tackled.
As of now, there is no Central law banning begging. However, there is a law enacted in Bombay, now Mumbai, in 1959, which has been adapted and implemented in at least 20 states and two Union Territories. In Delhi, for instance, persons giving alms to the beggars at traffic junctions and public roads and, thereby, obstructing traffic can be penalised. The fact of the matter is that no one is punished for giving alms.
During special drives, the police round up the beggars and take them to the so-called shelter homes where the living conditions are horrible. They invariably return to the streets, the vicinity of religious places and tourist centres to carry on their business. The homeless, who are not beggars, are also treated like beggars. They are often at the receiving end of the law.
It is a misconception that all beggars choose the profession voluntarily. There are syndicates of beggars, who are controlled by the mafia. They kidnap children, maim them and force them into begging. Such children would not even know that they are victims of a racket. The pity is that such organised racketeers, who are hand in glove with the local law-enforcing agencies, are seldom caught, let alone punished.
More often than not, the baby in the hands of the woman begging at the traffic island is drugged and not sleeping as many might imagine. It is not for want of work or good health that some beg. They beg because they have lost the sense of shame and find begging more lucrative and easier to do. Begging has its negative implications for the country and society. Tourists are one of the worst-hit victims of begging. They are often cornered by the beggars and forced to give money. Similarly, visitors to religious places consider them a great nuisance.
Beggars choose a religious attire to force the faithful to part with money. True, ‘Daan’ (alms-giving) is scripturally sanctified. Mendicants are supposed to live on charity. However, Patanjali asserts that accepting gifts is forbidden. Manu and Kautilya emphasise charity through institutions. Thus, there is scriptural sanctity for effective steps against begging. A new class of sophisticated beggars has also arisen.
Recently, the Kerala high court pointed towards the need to ensure that those who raise crores of rupees through crowdfunding do not misuse the money. There is no mechanism to monitor whether the money reached the intended beneficiaries or not. If poverty is the root cause of begging, corrective socio-economic measures can root it out. If it is the result of organised crime, it needs to be treated differently. There is no one size that fits all in the case of begging too!
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