To round up, arrest and 'deport' beggars from Delhi's streets, the Delhi police used The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, promulgated in 1959 with full force. This Act which under its broad definition of begging allows police to round up and arrest anybody indulging singing, dancing, fortune-telling, asking for alms, exposing deformity on the streets, was challenged in the Supreme Court on Monday, reports Mumbai Mirror.
The immediate provocation for a petition to challenge this Act was the way the Delhi state government invoked it to get rid of its poor and homeless to project an image of clean and shinning Delhi for the CWG.
Elaborating on the Delhi government's campaign, Sanjay Kumar of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an NGO involved in providing shelter to the homeless, said, "The drive peaked in May. Two to three mobile courts carrying magistrates and representatives from the social welfare ministry moved about in various parts of the city." These courts reportedly rounded up the beggars and dropped them outside city limits, in places as far as Narela. "Most of them eventually ended up in distant places like Haridwar and Rishikesh," says Kumar, adding, "These beggars have warned by the Government not to enter Delhi till October 20. It is unlikely they will make an early entry."
It is the manner in which the Delhi government resuscitated the Act to push the poor out of the city that has galvanised civil rights activists. “The Act essentially makes it a crime to be poor,” explained senior counsel Colin Gonsalves, who has scaled up his protest against the BPBA after the CWG incident. “How can the government deport any citizen from its state? It is in violation of Article 19 of the Indian constitution,” he added. Gonsalves also pointed out the rather strict penalty provisions under the Act: in the first arrest, one can be imprisoned up to three years and in the second arrest, it extends up to 10 years.
Both Gonsalves and National Advisory Council member Harsh Mander have challenged the constitutional validity of the BPBA in the Supreme Court which was admitted on Tuesday. “Notices have been issued. Some 18 states, including Mumbai, routinely use provisions of the Act to deal with the poor,” said Gonsalves.
A study conducted by the Centre for Media Studies says that 90 per cent of the population of beggars in Delhi are poverty-stricken migrants from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who leave their homes behind in search for sustenance. But this is not the first time the capital city has banished its poor. In 1971, Indira Gandhi's government came under heavy criticism for the Garibi Hatao campaign, which systematically pushed the poor away from the city's spruced up streets. According to Mrs Gandhi's critics, Garibi Hatao was a front for her Garib Hatao agenda.
Prominent law activist Usha Ramanathan said whatever happened in Delhi during the CWG was shameful and reminiscent of the measures adopted during the Emergency. “It was a blot on democracy,” she said, adding, “Vendors were asked to go away, public utilities were shut down, the poor were hidden away behind colourful billboards. India certainly did not look like a superpower that is so ashamed of its poor that it prefers to hide them.”
In fact, several Delhi roads, widened and beautified in the wake of the Games, were cordoned off by view cutters that celebrated the ‘spirit' of the games. Behind these boards lay slums and beggar colonies the international city did not want the world to discover.
Interestingly, Pawan Khera, OSD to Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit denied that the Government had any role in rounding up beggars or sending them to some shelter homes. “We run some 70 shelter homes for the homeless during the winter. Ideally we would like the beggars to continue staying there beyond the Games. The point is, we have no police powers to pick them up and put them in any home.” Khera added, “I find it odd that because of the CWG, civil society is all worked up because beggars are not on the streets but in shelter homes.”
Contradicting government claims that it had provided shelter to about 40,000 beggars and was even feeding them, Kumar said, “There is no way Delhi can provide shelter to such a number. At the most, the city has the capacity to provide night shelter to about 7,000 people.” Kumar speaks from his experience of having been involved in such efforts alongside the government in the winter and running about 12 homes.
Usha Ramanathan offers numbers. Of the 44 slum clusters allegedly identified by the Delhi government for removal, only three or four have been removed. The rest were concealed by the view-cutters. “Remember, they have still not given up on the idea of making the city slum free,” she cautioned, hinting at what may be in store for the poor who were hiding behind the towering sporting edifices.