ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Penalising Poverty

The Case of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959

The unconstitutional Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 criminalises begging and targets people for being homeless or unemployed despite “the relief of the disabled and unemployable” being a state responsibility. The state penalises the poor for being poor. Instead, it must identify and understand the reasons that lead people towards begging and alter laws and policies to provide for structures and an institutional framework that build people’s capacities to move out of destitution. Myths around begging must be broken to effect a change in perceptions and attitudes to achieve this end.

The historical origins of anti-beggary laws can be traced to 14th century England, when feudalism was breaking down to give way to capitalism and the Black Death had created a massive shortage of labour. The first vagrancy law came into effect in 1349, criminalising homelessness in cities. The law was created to force farm-based labour to remain tied to the landowning class and ensure that wages were kept low. As capitalism took firm root, amendments were made in the beggary and vagrancy laws to criminalise “idleness” and “rowdy” or “indecent” behaviour, rather than movement of labour to the cities. By the 16th century, the emphasis of the legislation across Europe and the United States had shifted to controlling the behaviour of the rootless poor, who were seen as people with potential to disturb the social order (Chambliss 1964; Beier and Ocobock 2008).

The vagrancy and beggary laws in India are a colonial hangover, promoting unequal labour relations and used as a tool of social control over the “unruly.” The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (BPBA; Government of Maharashtra 1959) is a comprehensive piece of legislation that criminalises begging in the country. Many states (such as Delhi and Gujarat) have adopted this act, either in toto or with minor changes. As far as the constitutionality of these legislations is concerned, they go against the grain of due process rights and are specifically in violation of Articles 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.1 The BPBA criminalises people for being homeless or without regular employment (who they are) rather than for their actions (what they do) (Goel 2010). Article 38 of the Constitution provides that the state shall secure a social order for the promotion of welfare of the people. Entry nine in the State List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution2 makes “the relief of the disabled and unemployable” a state subject. The existence and implementation of anti-beggary laws is thus in direct assault of these constitutional provisions.

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Updated On : 4th Jun, 2018
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