The act of begging is a crime in 20 Indian states. In most places, people can be arrested for “looking poor.” Most of the state laws (except of Assam and Tamil Nadu) consider the mere appearance of not having the means to sustain oneself or wandering about in a public place as begging. In other words, if you look poor, you can be arrested. The law in West Bengal uses language similar to early colonial laws, such as the term ‘vagrants’. Some laws date back to pre-Independence times (Tamil Nadu), some are as recent as 2004 (Sikkim), but the classification of begging as a criminal activity remains unchanged. There have been reports of police raids rounding up homeless working people or nomadic tribes as “beggars”. Laws allow the police to round up beggars without warrant and judges to confine them in government-run institutions for long or indefinite periods–a violation of constitutional principles. In some states, a distinction is made between a workhouse (where those capable of physical labour are detained) and special homes (for those incapable of physical labour).
Most state laws allow the police to arrest anyone they think is a beggar without a warrant. In its drive to “beautify” the city in the run up to the Commonwealth Games, the Delhi government decided to rid the city of beggars. It set up “mobile courts” where a magistrate would sit in a minibus and summarily try the beggars rounded up. The question arises: if the “crime” of begging is so serious that it is classified as cognisable and non-bailable, how is a “summary” inquiry sufficient to establish guilt?
Under most laws (with the exception of Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and West Bengal), the court can also order the detention of people who are dependent on the person arrested for begging. So if a man is arrested for begging, his wife and children can be detained. In Himachal Pradesh, the law goes a step further by allowing the court to send people who knowingly live off the earnings of a beggar to jail. Under this law, anyone proved “to be living with or to be habitually in company of, a beggar” can be punished. The police can arrest and detain entire families under this provision. Local police or officers of the welfare department conduct periodic raids to clear the streets of beggars. Those rounded up routinely include members of the transgender community, for whom begging is a significant source of livelihood. Many state laws treat begging as a cognisable and non-bailable offense, for which a summary inquiry can be held to ascertain guilt and award punishment.
THE WORLD FOR THE WORKERS!