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Understanding Destitution

Living on the street is a traumatic experience where abuse is commonplace. The suspicion-filled eyes of the public question the motives of those living on the streets. Very often, they are seen as people who do not want to work and are happy making a living out of begging. They are often referred to in negative terms - nuisance, problem, social disease, dirt, ‘burden on society’, criminal, and so on. The Government system too has not been able to keep itself away from such perceptions. This population comprises not only of migrant workers who move in search of employment but also includes people who are mentally ill, disabled, aged, infirm and those abandoned by their families. Unaware of policies or programmes of the State or debates at national or international fora about homelessness, for the homeless citizen, each day brings new challenges and problems that require new methods and adjustment. Beggary Prevention Laws, State's most active response to such destitution, does nothing beyond criminalizing the poor. 

In order to device strategies to prevent such criminalization, it is important to understand the origin, context and nature of the problem. It is critical to acknowledge the gaps and lacuna in the existing system to make interventions effective. Life on street is tough and gets worse when it is accompanied by social and systemic marginalization,stigma and abuse.

Battling this problem requires longterm collective action, political will and the support of the administration, the voluntary agencies and civil society. Individual efforts are being made by different groups; however, to develop appropriate systemic response by the government, collective action is required. The ‘collective force’ would not only provide strength in our attempts for policy formulation but also provide crucial and much-needed assistance in each other’s work, especially matters related to rehabilitation and family reintegration.

With our understanding of vulnerable groups and state's mandate to protect people's lives, we have the potential to become a platform to address this issue effectively. With this hope and belief in the collective strength, we are on a journey that will hopefully, lead to a just and fair society, where the poor are no longer punished for being poor.



One experience common to most homeless groups is the possibility of getting processed under beggary prevention laws. Person may or may not be into begging but the presence on the street makes one vulnerable to getting 'picked up' and confined into institutions under the law. In different states, there are different laws to deal with beggary but they have similar provisions and the profile of those processed under such laws more or less remains same. The anti-beggary law itself does not draw any distinction between organized begging (where person forces and compels others to beg) and people who beg to sustain themselves. The current institutionalized approach to prevent begging is resulting in punishing the destitute and abandoned people. For these abandoned, dispossessed and destitute people, begging is not out of choice but a matter of survival; an enforced stay in a Beggar's Home cannot deter them from returning to begging when they are released.

By detaining these people in custodial institutions, the problems they face get further compounded. Homelessness and beggary are not fundamentally an outcome of only urbanisation, and hence cannot be resolved within the confines of the urban space. The real solution perhaps would be to recognize the potential of the people and expand their livelihood options and insure care for elderly and destitute. For this, it is crucial to create a legal system that does not exclude the most vulnerable from the development process. The nature of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 and its implementation, which criminalises poverty, has been the prime concern for our work.

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