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1. How was ‘Koshish’ conceived?

Koshish was initiated in August 2006 with an aim to address the issues of homelessness, destitution and beggary. It was started as a response to the systemic injustice and criminalization of poverty that was happening under the Beggary Prevention Law.

Homeless persons and those termed as beggars are socially stigmatized and the State’s response towards these groups is one of penalization and criminalization, instead of inclusion and rehabilitation. Processes related to our so-called ‘development’ paradigm compel large sections to leave their native places and land up in unfamiliar and hostile cities, which in turn are reluctant to accept their existence other than seeing them as part of the unorganized labor force. There is also significant presence of persons who have been abandoned, are disabled, mentally ill or severely sick.

The Bombay Prevention of Beggary Act (BPBA), 1959, adopted by several other states (including Delhi), was meant to prevent beggary through training and rehabilitation of those into begging. However, the way beggary and the beggar is defined in the Act makes it an anti-poor legislation. In effect, it is not a law aimed at the rehabilitation of persons forced into beggary but a means to punish poor persons who eke out a living on the margins of society. Most persons arrested under BPBA are not beggars but poor and homeless people, very often the elderly, sick, abandoned, mentally ill or disabled, struggling for their survival. Instead of extending support, the existing system punish them does nothing beyond criminalizing their poverty and destitution.

2. What were the social stigmas associated with beggars that you had to face when you started with this initiative?

Beggary is largely seen as a choice by the larger society. It is hardly seen as an adverse circumstance people face. As a result there are many stigmas associated with beggars. One of the most prominent beliefs about people in begging is that they indulge in it despite having many alternatives. Most people question why they don’t work for a living. It is also believed that most of them solicit alms to buy drugs and alcohol. As they are associated with all illegitimate things, they are perceived as persons who cause public nuisance and disturb the public order. It is believed that they form the muck of the city and fully contribute to making it dirtier. Another important stigma associated with them has been that they are absolutely unwilling to work and don’t engage in physical labour. As a result such people also find it difficult to seek opportunities of livelihood. It is believed that people indulge in beggary because it is easy to earn money through this means. The common perception is that these people come from under developed states.

However, all these notions are far from reality. It is easier to conclude than to invest time and energy to understand the real issues. For those who actually want to understand the lives that persons in destitution have, all that is required is some time and unbiased, neutral approach.

3. What are the reasons for which people take up begging? Can you mention a few examples from your experience?

A person can be pushed into Begging due to several less than optimal life circumstances characterized by the absence of a combination of the following: - Shelter, Food, clothing, healthcare facilities, water, and sanitation facilities.

It can be the outcome of economic deprivation or Social/ familial rejection or exclusion. Economic deprivation of communities could result on a large scale due to displacement caused as a result of development projects or inter community conflicts or Natural/ manmade calamities. Economic deprivation at an individual level could be a result of a sudden/ drastic event like death of the bread winner of the family, or a major accident/ physical or mental disability that results in drying up of the financial resources of a family, or a slow gradual deterioration in economic status due to loss of livelihood.

Social exclusion can be a result of one or several attitudinal deficiencies (especially related with identities) that result in issues like gender discrimination, Domestic violence, discrimination against religious, caste and sexual minorities. It could also result from prejudice against people with HIV or Leprosy. One or several of these factors combine together to form a situation of continuous poverty.

In a way Begging can be seen as the result of a person’s ‘slipping off’ the stairs of several social indicators and not finding even one railing to hold onto. (Where slipping on one step will increase the chances of slipping off the next too) eg: a disability caused due to an accident which has already caused the financial resources of a family to dry up, will further reduce the clients’ chances of finding a job, because of his reduced abilities and the prejudice that exists against physically challenged people. Such loss of livelihood could reduce the health, education and other living standards of a family and could gradually result in making them destitute.

Many women who have been arrested under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act have been victims of sexual, physical or mental violence. They have also faced violence at the hands of their family members. Thus moving out and surviving on alms has been a better option in comparison with staying at home. Most of the persons who engage in begging don’t have access to pension schemes, like Old age and Disability pension.

4. What are living conditions like in beggars’ homes? How do you strive to improve it?

Persons arrested are perceived as offenders, so the facilities and arrangement made for them are most basic, minimal if any.

The most important aspect of the living conditions is the mental and psychological breakdown of a person as a result of staying inside an institution away from his/ her family and ecosystem. If s/he was economically deprived it is likely that s/he is going to be poorer after release having lost his job (if any), and having lost touch with his skill set.

Most of the people who are arrested under BPBA are persons needing the support of the state and civil society. Like the Differently abled, the very old and women rescued from abusive situations. Also this category of persons overlaps with those having a fractured hope for the future. Thus loneliness and hopelessness encapsulates the atmosphere of a beggar home.

We at KOSHISH have made several interventions to deal with this. Sports activities involving both the staff and the residents of the institutions has proved to be good way of breaking this gloominess that forms part of the institution. It also helps in breaking the ice between the residents and the staff members facilitating some meaningful interaction so that the staff members can have a peek into the lives of the residents. Art based and cultural activities have also proved to be a way of livening up the atmosphere of the institution. It has been observed that such activities also have a therapeutic effect on people and they are able to rebuild their lives with renewed vigor. Sensitization and Training of the staff has also been undertaken by KOSHISH to orient them to the issue of Beggary and surrounding concerns.

5. Beggars who are sent to beggar homes often take up begging again once they are out. What do you think are the reasons?

Many of the persons arrested under BPBA are not engaged in Begging in the first place but are daily wage earners and/ or homeless citizens. Once released after the remand period they go back to work if their job remains. Those who have been arrested and detained for a period of one or three years take much longer to come back to the same state they were in before arrest. If a person, who was homeless and a daily wage earner, stays inside the institution for a year she/he is likely to come back to more adverse circumstances and thus the likeliness that now he/she will be compelled to beg is increased. Those who were into begging in the first place will go back because staying in the beggars’ home is only a penalty they pay but for being poor because its environment and facilities are not conducive to bringing people back to the mainstream.

But, it’ll be untrue to say that all persons released go back to begging. Training programme run by KOSHISH has been instrumental in enhancing people’s skills, like In Delhi KOSHISH has been running ‘Electrical work training’. In Mumbai the residents of Beggars home are being trained at making decorative candles, electrical wiring and repairs, fast food cooking, stitching among many others. Many of the persons released have taken up jobs once they are released. Our Employers’ Collective program has supported several persons to settle down with jobs as security personnel in malls, caretakers in shelters for the homeless, in hotels, furniture shops, construction sites, bakeries and so on.

6. One of the priorities of ‘Koshish’ is to get The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 repealed. What in your opinion is the problem with the current beggary law?

The basic essence of the Beggary law is that it criminalizes begging which itself is remarkably unfair in a country like India. It is based on the premise that poverty was a historical concern and that every person who has been abused within his/ her family, or is old or differently abled is receiving support from the state and civil society members. The law in its underlining argument assumes that Begging is a choice one of the alternative that people choose and enjoy. Our experience of working inside the institution has shown that this assumption is extremely untrue. Most persons are in the state of destitution and helplessness.

Another important thing about the legislation is that it defines begging in a very questionable manner. Section 2(1) of Chapter one states that,
Begging means
a) Soliciting or receiving alms in a public place whether or not under any pretense such as singing, dancing, and fortune telling, performing or offering any article for sale.
d) Having no visible means of subsistence and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner as makes it likely that the person doing so exist soliciting or receiving alms.
Sub part (a) equates street performing and fortune telling with Begging which is indeed a source of livelihood for many people. As a result of this the community of fortune tellers has always been amongst those who are arrested under this law.
Sub part (b), is even more controversial, unconstitutional and in total violation of the fundamental right to Right to Life and Liberty (Article 21). It gives an immense and unfair amount of discretion to the raiding team to decide who is likely to beg. This provision also lays an unjustified quantum of importance over the appearance of a person and operates at a preventive level. Thus a person whose means of living are not visible to the raiding team, or who has been wandering in a public place and looks poor can easily fall prey to arrest and detention under the act. Most homeless people or persons from villages with dirty clothes and a different appearance than the rich are assumed to be beggars and are arrested under the act. The Beggary act provides for arrest of an offender without a warrant.
It has a provision for detention of persons who are wholly dependent on the beggar. Section 9 of the act says that when the court has ordered the detention of a person in a certified institution under section 5 or 6, it may often making an inquiry as it thinks fit order any person who is wholly dependent on such person to be detained in a certified institution for a like period.

The Act also provides for the indefinite detention of incurably helpless beggars, which includes blind, crippled or otherwise incurably helpless persons. It is needless to say that in the era of staunch believers in Human Rights for persons with Disabilities this provision comes as a blow to such idyllic ideas.

7. Is the beggary law the only problem why we cannot think of a country where nobody is a beggar or the root of the problem lies elsewhere? If you agree with the latter, where do you think the problem lies?

If anything the Beggary law is criminalizing the poor and as a result making them further deprived of what is rightfully theirs. To think of a country without beggars coincides with thinking of a country without deprivation and poverty. It would mean that Inequalities of caste, class, gender that make people vulnerable to various forms of difficulties are done away with. It would mean that no individual will lose his/ her land due to war, natural calamity, communal riots or displacement due to development projects and even if that happens every person shall have access to the requisite and wholesome Resettlement and Rehabilitation. Every individual shall have an opportunity to earn a livelihood and the country shall grow sufficient food for all and everyone shall have access to this food. Every individual shall have access to adequate healthcare. It would also mean that when families break or become dysfunctional there shall be systems in place to support individual family members especially the more vulnerable ones. Such a situation assumes that women shall be highly respected and not be abused inside families and institutions. There shall be enough jobs in rural areas so that people don’t feel the need to migrate to urban areas. All persons suffering from mental illness shall have access to shelter, food, treatment and other forms of support needed. Then, indeed we might be able to imagine a nation without destitution.

8. After these people are rehabilitated and they start earning a living, do they find social acceptance as well?

KOSHISH has a programme called the ‘Employers Collective’. It involves a set of employers who understand the Beggary law and also the circumstances our clients come from. After release if any of our clients show willingness to work and seek our help for the same, they are placed with one of these employers. Through this kind of work we have observed that social acceptance is possible, but there is a long way before it can happen on a large scale.

9. What do you think can be done to discourage people from begging?

People are unlikely to beg when they have Social support systems in times of difficulty whether financial, psychological, health related or the result of an accident or calamity affecting many individuals. Enough opportunities for work and equality for all irrespective of caste, gender, religion shall ensure that people have equal access to all resources, thus reducing the likeliness of persons turning destitute.

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