The Bombay High Court’s Crude Statements on Beggars Overlook the Inability of the State and the Condition of the Urban Poor

On July 3, 2021, the Bombay high court dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) asking the BMC to give food, water, and sanitation services to beggars and homeless individuals in Mumbai. The division bench argued that citizens who are destitute “should also strive for the country” and that “everything couldn’t be provided by the state.” The petition has been described “an incitement to people not to work” by the bench, among other things.

It’s important to take into consideration such point in light of what happened in Mumbai involving the city’s urban poor. The ‘zero beggars drive’ was announced by Mumbai’s joint commissioner of police on February 9, 2021. Begging is a “social crime,” according to the joint commissioner, and it gives Mumbai a “bad image.” Under the notorious Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, the police nabbed 14 people as beggars and deported them to the Chembur Beggar Home, one of the several incarceration centres.

The Bombay high court’s statement that “everything cannot be provided by the state” is an expedient way for the government to avoid its responsibility to the urban poor. In May 2018, a Delhi high court bench had been evaluating petitions challenging the validity of the city’s anti-begging law (which the Delhi administration adopted in 1960 from the Bombay Act). Justices Gita Mittal and C. Hari Shankar questioned the Union government on how begging could be considered a crime in a country where the government fails to provide basic services to its citizens. The Bombay high court flips this argument on its head by pinning the onus on the poor rather than the government, implying that the poor do not work intentionally.

When the Delhi high court declared the capital’s anti-begging law unlawful in August 2018, it was found that 74% of those imprisoned as beggars in Delhi were actually workers in the informal sector, such as construction, marketplaces, and small hotels. There were 45 percent of those who were homeless. People arrested were “unaware of the reasons for arrest and were hauled to the Beggars Court under the guise of doing some task like cleaning,” according to the petitioners in the case. The observations of the Bombay high court corroborate this coercive approach to the urban poor. This is a reversal of the Supreme Court’s recent order for the Union and five state governments – Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, and Bihar – to answer to a petition calling for the repeal of anti-begging legislation.

The plea stated that “the presence of beggars is evidence that the state has failed to provide these basic facilities to all its citizens, thus instead of working on its failure and examining what made people beg, criminalising the act of begging is irrational and against the approach of a socialist nation as embedded in the preamble of our Constitution”

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