Police in India's commercial capital face accusations of using an old law against begging as a way to pick up anyone sleeping on the streets so they can reach their arrest quotas.
MUMBAI — Mahesh Kavade does not have a home. But as an informal labourer, he takes construction site jobs working on other people’s. One May morning, he was asleep on a bench on platform 1 at Kurla railway station, when he was abruptly roused and hauled into a police van, he claims. He had little on him besides his clothes; no phone, and all his savings left with a friend.
Kavade, 30, was taken to the police station, and some hours later brought to the local magistrate’s court where he spent the afternoon crouched on his haunches, back to the wall, the plain-clothes policemen towering beside him. By 4pm, the corridor was thick with people, some barefoot, many sweating profusely, most of them silent, all waiting on the floor.
When it was his turn, Kavade along with two other men, was ushered into line and directed to face Judge KK Shah of the 45th court, or what is colloquially called the ‘Beggars’ court’. She asked a few perfunctory questions: were you begging? Why did the police catch you? Do you have any identification documents? Then they were led off to the large police vans parked below.
Six days a week, every afternoon after 2pm, the same banal ritual plays out. Abubakar Siddique, 25, detained from Shivaji Park. Saifan Shaikh, 64, detained from Haji Ali. Salim Shaikh, 32, detained from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.
These men and women are brought in because the police claim they were begging, an offence according to the Maharashtra Prevention of Begging Act, and one where a conviction could invite a sentence of up to 10 years. If the judge is satisfied by the police’s claims, the detainees are sent to the nearby Chembur Beggars’ Home for up to seven days.
But many, like Kavade, claim they are informal labourers, not beggars, caught by overzealous officials for no real reason.
“I don't want this on my record," Kavade said. “This has never happened to me. What will my family think?” He expected his monthly earnings of 12,000 rupees ($168) would be hit by the week-long detention, with less to send home.
Between April 2018 and March 2019, around 7,200 people were remanded after being caught begging in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, according to Sharad Kurhade, superintendent of the Chembur home. He estimated about 10 percent were ‘repeaters’; those who had been brought in before. Thereafter, based on individual reports submitted to the court by probation officers, between 250 and 300 received ‘detention orders’ or convictions -- usually only passed if the person was a ‘repeater’ -- that consigned them to a term in one of 14 institutions in Maharashtra.
Last August the Delhi high court decriminalised begging in the capital, ruling that the law violated fundamental rights, but in Maharashtra, begging is still a crime. A Public Interest Litigation filed by Koshish, a field action project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, seeking a review of the law is pending in the Bombay high court.
The state purports to help wean the destitute off begging, to rehabilitate them so they pull themselves together and gain employment. But because the Act confers wide-ranging powers and loosely defines begging, it is an easy weapon to wield against the poor and homeless, with little infrastructure in place to enable genuine support.
Mumbai has 57,416 homeless people, according to the last census, a figure activists believe is a gross underestimation. The homeless are a headache for the state, unkempt men and women who pockmark public places and must be thrust out of view.
“It is very clear [it is to] make the streets look good,” said Mohd Tarique, Director of Koshish, which has closely worked on the issue. “That people should not be seen in certain places. The beggars home is like a dumping ground. In terms of rehabilitation not much is happening.” This results in a farce; people are detained, released, detained again.
This reporter spoke with at least a dozen detained persons, as also dozens of activists, police, court and government officials, to understand how the begging law continues to criminalise the urban poor. Some spoke off record fearing repercussions or because they were not authorised to speak to reporters.
“Do I look like a beggar?” asked one Mahim man, requesting anonymity as he feared for his reputation and hadn’t told his family he had been picked up on his way to work one morning.
“The police lied that I was begging. And I did not have any identity documents so they took me in.”
He rued losing at least four days of work and about 2,000 rupees ($28) in earnings.
This man, who solicited catering jobs on a day-by-day basis, slept on benches and footpaths each night, and had just done his second stint in two months at the home. “I speak on behalf of all workers like myself: just because we don’t have identification documents, we are facing these problems.”
He feared getting caught a third time, and inviting a year-long detention order, so he planned to leave Mumbai.
“Even if a person gets released there is a psychological impact, and he may find it hard to get a job, even if the court says he did nothing wrong,” said Tarique.
Those who are detained are not always caught in the act of begging, which even some police admit.
“Sometimes we have to meet targets, say 20 or 25 per month,” said one policeman. “When new bosses are posted, they ask us what we are doing? People upload pictures online of homeless people saying the police is not doing its job. What should we do?”
Zone 1, which covers seven South Mumbai police stations, has a dedicated squad, but Deputy Commissioner Abhishek Trimukhe denied setting targets. “Our job is to implement the law,” he said.
The police speak the language of benevolent paternalism, preferring to invoke rehabilitation rather than retribution. “At the home they get two good meals, a wash, a shave, it's for their benefit,” said another policeman. “This is not the British raj.” He added that some voluntarily turned themselves in to enjoy the perks of having a roof over their heads.
A burly, bespectacled policeman called a man named Salim Shaikh out of line outside court one day. "Tell her how you sat in our van yourself," he urged. Shaikh, with eyes glazed, swayed unsteadily towards us. He smiled sheepishly and admitted this was true. "Other policemen were bothering me so I went up and surrendered to these cops," he said. He earned Rs 200 to 300 a day doing odd jobs at the railway terminus, where he also slept, and was routinely hustled by the police.
Wearing a faded checked shirt, his jeans rumpled, his feet naked, he slid back into line. “There is a smell, the beggar smell,” remarked another cop. “We are used to it now.”
But his colleague appeared not to be -- he had arrived wearing a mask to fend off what he claimed was the putrid stench of stale sweat and grimy clothes. His right thumb was wrapped in a bandage, after a detainee bit him the previous week while being taken into the van. He was on a series of precautionary rabies shots.
The state believes that professional begging rackets prevail, and that those who beg are simply lazy or haven’t tried working enough. But rackets are largely mythical, Tarique pointed out. And the act of begging is often not a choice.
“I quit begging and started working,” said Gauri Mireli, 25, who was detained at Kalyan station with her daughter. “But I couldn’t return to construction work because they wouldn’t let me bring my infant. So I started begging again.” After paying a 800 rupee ($11) fine, Mireli, a migrant from the neighbouring state of Telangana, was let off.
The beggars’ homes for men and women lie side by side on a large, green piece of land in the north of Mumbai, off a main road. The home’s 850-person capacity rarely overflows, unless there is a special ‘clean-up’ drive before VIP visits, when hundreds might be picked up in an effort to beautify the streets.
The home has 46 sanctioned posts, of which 17 are vacant, including four out of five posts for probation officers. This means a single officer often interviews 50 people a day, depending on how many are remanded, writing individual reports to submit to the court.
Such reports are meant to document a person’s background, circumstances and history of begging, on the basis of which the court decides to convict or acquit.
Now, the state government is having preliminary conversations about reviewing the law, according to Tarique, who has been part of the deliberations.
“The Delhi high court has said begging should not be criminalised,” said Kurhade. “Rather, in every district there should be a shelter home for the destitute and those who would themselves like to go there.”
Meanwhile, the rigmarole in the magistrate’s court continues daily. Men and women standing silently, hands folded, fumbling to produce documentation, shuffling out disconsolately. Just like this exchange with detainees from Shahu Nagar:
“Do you have anyone from your home for support?” the court asks.
They shake their heads. “We do not have a home.”