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Delhi HC Strikes Down Provisions In Law That Criminalizes Begging

It has to be said right at the outset that in a remarkable and laudable judgment with far reaching consequences, the Delhi High Court in Harsh Mander & Anr v UOI & Ors in W.P.(C) 10498/2009 & CM Appl. 1837/2010 on August 8, 2018 decriminalised begging, striking down as “unconstitutional” the provisions which made it an offence. How can any law on earth punish a poor and hapless person who due to some reason is unable to earn as for instance those who lose their hands and legs and are not literate and are compelled to resort to begging due to no other option being left before them? This precisely is the reason why Delhi High Court too struck the right chord and struck down the provisions in a law that criminalises begging! I have really just no words and am falling short of words to express my utmost and unadulterated appreciation for this landmark judgment which must be read by all those who are literate and it must be emulated by all courts in all parts of the world and not just in India alone!

                                             To be sure, the Delhi High Court Bench comprising of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar who delivered this landmark judgment begins at the very beginning by first and foremost quoting from an article in The Guardian which says that, “…A society that sees legislating inequality and homelessness into invisibility has unquestionably lost its way…” Going forward, the Bench clearly held that, “The inevitable sequitur to our decision would be that all prosecutions, under the Act against persons alleged to have committed the offence of begging, would be liable to be struck down.” Very rightly said! There can be no denying it!

                          It must be revealed here that this landmark judgment came on a petition filed by activists including Harsh Mander, who was represented by senior Supreme Court advocate Colin Gonsalves. It said the provisions of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act which treats begging as an offence cannot sustain constitutional scrutiny.

                                        Interestingly enough, while there is no central law on begging and destitution, several States have either adopted the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 or have modeled their laws on it. The Act prescribes a punishment of detention for not more than three years if a person who was detained in a certified institution, is found begging and is convicted for the first time. All offences under the Act, except those under Section 11, are to be tried summarily. Section 11 which gives the opportunity of being heard to the accused, imposes a punishment of a minimum of one year and a maximum of three years imprisonment on those who cause others to beg or use them for begging.  

                                        It must be brought out here that the Act was made applicable to Delhi in 1960. The Delhi High Court was hearing two PILs – filed by social activists Harsh Mander and Karnika Sawhney – challenging the constitutionality and validity of all Sections, except Section 11 of the Act. They had alleged a violation of Articles 14, 19, 20, 21 and 22 of the Constitution of India by the impugned provisions. They had pointed out that the definition of “begging” under the Act violated Article 14, as it does not make any distinction between persons who solicit or receive money for authorized purposes and those who are singing, dancing or engaged in similar activities.

                                     In addition, they had further alleged that the Act was being arbitrarily applied. They submitted that, “While the Act unjustly restricts the movement of beggars, the application of the Act also limits the movement of a large number of no-beggars. Interviews with lawyers providing legal aid have revealed that 74% of persons arrested were from the informal labour sector such as those employed in small hotels, markets and construction, and 45% were homeless. It was observed that beggars were unaware of the reasons of arrest and were taken to the Beggars Court at the pretext of doing some work like cleaning.”    

                                         As things stood, the Bench agreed with the petitioners contentions and noted inter alia that the law does not in fact make any distinction between types of begging i.e. voluntary or involuntary. It further noted that the State was using homelessness and begging synonymously and termed this arbitrary. Besides, the Court considered the “futility” of lodging and detaining beggars in beggars home as a wastage of public funds, and highlighted the inadequacy of the impugned provisions, observing, “”If we want to eradicate begging, artificial means to make beggars invisible will not suffice. A move to criminalize them will make them invisible without addressing the root cause of the problem. The root cause is poverty, which has many structural reasons: no access to education, social protection, discrimination based on caste and ethnicity, landlessness, physical and mental challenges and isolation.”

                                      Suffice it to say, the Bench said the inevitable consequence of this verdict would be that the prosecutions under the Act against those who are alleged to have committed the offence of begging, would be liable to be struck down. It held that, “The power to do so would, however, appropriately vest in the courts seized of such prosecutions, and we, therefore, limit ourselves to observing that the fate of such prosecutions, if any, would have to abide by the present judgment, and our observations and findings contained herein.”

                                 Needless to say, in her last judgment as the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice Gita Mittal who has been approved as the Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court minced absolutely no words in stating clearly and categorically that, “People in this stratum do not have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter and health, and in addition criminalizing them denies them the basic fundamental right to communicate and seek to deal with their plight.” Absolutely right! No person in his right senses will ever disagree with what Justice Gita Mittal has said!     

                                          Be it noted, Delhi Prevention of Begging Rules 1960 formulated under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959, makes begging an offence. Under this offence, beggars were often picked up and produced before the courts from where they were sent to beggar homes. The 23-page landmark judgment came on two pleas, challenging various sections of the Bombay Begging Act which was adopted by the Union Territory of Delhi in 1960. Para 1 of this landmark judgment begins by pointing out that, “These writ petitions challenge the constitutionality and validity of all sections, except Section 11 of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (hereafter referred to as the ‘Act’) as extended to the Union Territory of Delhi (now the NCT of Delhi) vide G.S.R. No. 638 dated 2nd June, 1960, published in the Gazette of India, pt. 11, Section 3(i), dated 11th June, 1960 on the ground that it violates the Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19, 20, 21 and 22 of the Constitution of India.”

                                      Truth be told, the Bench of Delhi High Court said that they are spared the necessity of striking down the entire Act and dealt with 25 Sections which either treat begging as an offence committed by the beggar or deal with ancillary issues such as powers of officers to deal with the said offence among others. It held that, “These provisions either treat begging as an offence committed by the beggar, or deal with ancillary issues such as powers of officers to deal with the said offence, the nature of enquiry to be conducted therein, punishments and penalties to be awarded for the offence, the institutions to which such “offenders” could be committed and procedures following the awarding of sentence for committing the said offence.” It further went on to say that, “These provisions, in our view, cannot sustain constitutional scrutiny and deserve, therefore, to be struck down.”  

                                        Simply put, while striking down the legal provision criminalizing begging in the capital, the Bench of Delhi High Court observed that, “Begging is their last resort to subsistence; they have no other means to survive.” It also observed that, “People beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to.” It also slammed the government for its failure to ensure the bare essentials of the right to life to all its citizens, even in Delhi, the national capital.

                                         As it turned out, the Delhi High Court Bench added that the state is at liberty to bring in an alternative legislation to curb any rackets of forced begging, after undertaking an empirical examination on the sociological and economic aspects of the matter. It also sent out a loud and clear message to the State by holding that, “If the State wishes to criminalise specific types of forced beggary, it has to first think out a clear factual basis and impact thereof to pass a well thought legislation after due application of mind and being mindful of the rights provided under the Constitution of India.”

                                     It must be reiterated that the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 functions as the derivative figure for all state anti-begging laws. Several beggars have been thrown into jail in the capital under the law. Such laws must be struck down and in Delhi this is exactly what the Delhi High Court has opted to do!

                                 Truly speaking, the Delhi High Court very clearly and convincingly held that, “Begging is a symptom of a disease, of the fact that the person has fallen through the socially created net. The government has the mandate to provide social security for everyone, to ensure that all citizens have basic facilities, and the presence of beggars is evidence that the state has not managed to provide these to all its citizens.” It also said that, “We find reports of starvations deaths in the newspapers and ensuring education to the 6 to 14 year old remains a challenge.” Madhur Verma who is Delhi Police spokesperson while hailing this landmark judgment rightly said that, “It’s a welcome move as begging is more of a social menace. It requires a more inclusive approach. Arresting someone for begging was hardly ever a solution.”

                                  Until now, the police was empowered to arrest beggars. This was used to arrest many poor and hapless beggars which only further served to rub salt on their wounds! But this landmark judgment will certainly now act as the most potential deterrent in protecting beggars from being arbitrarily arrested and thrown behind bars just for begging! It has most certainly come as a real beacon of hope for these poor hapless beggars who feel their voice is unrepresented among the higher echelons of ruling class!  

                                    It cannot be lost on us that para 31 of this landmark judgment pulls back no punches in conveying it clearly and categorically that, “Criminalizing begging is a wrong approach to deal with the underlying causes of the problem. It ignores the reality that people who beg are the poorest of the poor and marginalized in society. Criminalizing begging violates the most fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.” Para 33 further observes that, “The State simply cannot fail to do its duty to provide a decent life to its citizens and add insult to injury by arresting, detaining and, if necessary, imprisoning such persons, who beg, in search for essentials of bare survival, which is even below sustenance. A person who is compelled to beg cannot be faulted for such actions in these circumstances. Any legislation, penalizing the people, therefore, is in the teeth of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”

                       Conclusions

                                    In essence, para 40 of this landmark judgment says that, “When, in the backdrop of the above discussion, we examine holistically, the provisions of the Act, we find that, while most of the provisions contained therein directly deal with begging, treating it as an offence, or other provisions ancillary thereto, there are certain provisions which do not treat beggary per se as an offence and which therefore, may not be hit by the vice of unconstitutionality.” Para 41 further stipulates that, “We are, therefore, spared the necessity of striking down the entire Act, wholesale. The provisions which treat beggary/begging as an offence, committed by the beggar, or are ancillary thereto, would be Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29.”

                                        Moving ahead, para 42 observes that, “These provisions either treat begging as an offence committed by the beggar, or deal with ancillary issues such as powers of officers to deal with the said offence, the nature of enquiry to be conducted therein, punishments and penalties to be awarded for the offence, the institutions to which such “offenders” could be committed and procedures following the awarding of sentence for committing the said offence. These provisions, in our view, cannot sustain constitutional scrutiny and deserve, therefore, to be struck down.” The next para 43 further says that, “The remaining provisions of the Act, which do not directly or indirectly criminalize begging, or relate to the “offence” of begging, such as Section 11 (which deals with penalty for employing or causing persons to solicit or receive alms, or using such persons as exhibits), Section 30 (which deals with seizure and disposal of animals exposed or exhibited for obtaining or extorting alms), and other provisions which deal with the nature of offences under the Act, appeals, the power to frame rules and removal of difficulties, would not be required to be struck down and are, therefore, maintained.”    

                                   Result

                                  Finally and most importantly, we now deal with what the Delhi High Court gave in its result. In para 44, it held that, “In the result, we declare Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29 of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, as extended to Delhi, as unconstitutional and strike down the said provisions.” In para 45, it held that, “The inevitable sequitur to our decision would be that all prosecutions, under the Act against persons alleged to have committed the offence of begging, would be liable to be struck down. The power to do so would, however, appropriately vest in the Courts seized of such prosecutions, and we, therefore, limit ourselves to observing that the fate of such prosecutions, if any, would have to abide by the present judgment, and our observations and findings contained therein.” In para 46, it also held that, “The state is always at liberty to bring in alternative legislation to curb any racket of forced begging after undertaking an empirical examination on the sociological and economic aspects of the matter.” Last but not the least, para 47 winds up by noting that, “Before parting with the case, we are reminded of the words of Krishna Iyer, J in the pronouncement reported at AIR 1981 SC 674 Gopalanachari v State of Kerala when he said that, “…If men can be whisked away by the police and imprisoned for long months and the court can keep the cases pending without thought to the fact that an old man is lying in cellular confinement without hope of his case being disposed of, Article 21, read with Articles 14 and 19 of the Constitution, remain symbolic and scriptural rather than a shield against unjust deprivation. Law is not a mascot but a defender of the faith. Surely, if law behaves lawlessly, social justice becomes a judicial hoax.”

                                            In the ultimate analysis, it is a landmark judgment which will ensure that beggars don’t land up in jail just because of begging. It is one of the finest judgment which must be read by every literate person! It will certainly not tantamount to an exaggeration from any angle to say that it is worthy of being emulated by all courts from top to bottom!

Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,

s/o Col BPS Sirohi,

A 82, Defence Enclave,

Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,

Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.