Criminalising Poverty - An Equal Law?

Debilitating. Despicable. Dehumanizing. That’s what poverty is, and that is the annihilating effect it has on those thrown into its cavernous cauldron. The “poor” is the most loathsome of species today. This loathing is shared by society, polity, and law, alike.

Franz Fanon in “The Wretched of the Earth” spoke of colonial rule describing native society not simply as one lacking in values, but “..the native is declared insensible to ethics ; he represents not only the absence of values but also the negation of values.” Anatole France could not have hit the nail harder with “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread."

Society might be forgiven for branding the poor and downtrodden with the seal of criminality and deviance, but when the law deems their excruciating privations as reasons and symptoms for crime, when it criminalises their very existence, looking for a more egregious travesty becomes an exercise in futility.

When the legal systems of democratic societies penalise destitution, unemployment and forced vagrancy, it is a throwback to the dark days of the English Poor Laws of the Middle Ages , it is a throwback to the days of Moynihan and Becker, who piled on the entire burden of crime and criminality on the shoulders of the poor and dispossessed.

Mike Davis’ “ Planet of Slums “ paints an apocalyptic picture of the epochal transition of huge swathes of humanity from the rural hinterland to the cities, but these are not the glittering worlds of rich, vibrant cultural centres beloved of Sunday-supplement dandies and middle-class fl'neurs, but vast "peri-urban" developments, horizontal spreads of unplanned squats and shantytowns, unsightly dumps of humans and waste, where squalour, misery and violence And in such a purgatory, inequality and disparity of all forms become the pernicious reality. And it is this sordid reality which anti-begging and urban planning laws punish with utmost severity.

Despite all promises and perceptions to the contrary, the State abdicates its responsibilities and instead exacerbates the misery. Worse, it glibly sifts through the rubble of economic recessions and turbulent downturns and strives towards restoring the status quo of capitalist accumulation. Worst is when it and its complicit institutions reason that poverty is a consequence of indolence and vice and should be meted out the harshest punishment. Penury, destitution and unemployment are viewed as sores on the body of developed, urbanised and cosmopolitan places, and are sought to be obliterated, completely disregarding the fact that the methods of such obliteration and eradication become the tools for extermination of those hopelessly and forcibly trapped in it. For instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt, credited with the messianic rescue of the post-Depression American economy, proclaimed without compunction- “The lessons of conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Therefore, there exist laws such as Ontario’s Safe Streets Act (locally known as the “squeegee law”) which seeks to uproot the menace of the destitute who solicit for alms in an “aggressive manner”. If a “reasonable person” feels that the method of solicitation poses a concern to his safety that would be “aggressive”. That is why the New York Supreme Court, in The People of the State of New York v. Eric Schrader (1994) held that begging is protected speech under the First Amendment, but only when resorted to be an altruistic soul. If done by a poor soul in dire need of material sustenance, it shall be an offence.

Hence we have the notorious Bombay Prevention of Begging Act 1959 (also extended to Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore). It defines “begging” as soliciting or receiving alms in a public place, and a beggar is one having no fixed abode or visible means of sustenance. The police are vested with carte blanche powers to forcibly evict beggars from the spot, present them before a Magistrate, who is authorised to send them to punitive captivity. These detention centres, such as the ones at Lampur and Kingsway Camp in Delhi, are horrifying enough to squeeze out of a person the last iota of self-respect he has left.

Ram Lakhan v State (2006) provides a shocking example of the law’s dehumanisation of the individual caught in its crosshairs. While convicting Ram Lakhan, the Magistrate had recorded- “the accused was found begging by raising his front paws at the passersby.” The layman on the street and the elites from their glitzy ivory towers do hurl the worst epithets at people compelled to stretch out their hands, but the majestic law treating its subject as a beast?

One would hope matters ended here with the hapless destitute consigned to a filthy prison, but how could that be, when the law, with all its hosannas to justice and equality, is nothing but a shill for the neoliberal State? Hence, the law brings down its iron fist on vagrancy and homelessness. It is too imperious to consider that it is the State’s quest towards “development” that uproot and imperil communities- farmers, Adivasis, those dwelling on the fringes of forest areas.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 was passed in Britain to indict economic migrants, disbanded soldiers who had survived the Napoleonic wars as well as the homeless. This draconian legislation, in turn, was inspired by the English Poor Law system As in modern societies, the legal apparatus during the reign of the Tudors, for example, aimed at imprisoning vagrants in a bid to render them ‘invisible’ to the public eye. In 1495, for instance, a law was passed by Parliament that instructed officials to seize “vagabonds, idle and suspected persons…and set in stocks, there to remain by the space of three days and three nights to have none other sustenance but bread and water… and then to be commanded to avoid the town”.

The Courts of independent India evict the homeless with gusto, while writing a jeremiad against the hordes of village yokels who encroach on public land and burden the exchequer. Rohinton Mistry depicts this best in “A Fine Balance”. When Ishwar and Om are evicted from their slum-dwelling and subsequently incarcerated, they ask what crime they have committed. Pat comes the reply from the custodian- “it is not a question of crime or punishment. It is a problem and a solution.” Just like Sanjay Gandhi wanted a quick solution with the Turkman Gate evictions in 1976.

Not to be outdone, the courts also proved their mettle at cleaning up the filth. Justice B.N. Kirpal thundered from the Delhi High Court Bench in Lawyers’ Cooperative Group Housing Society vs Union of India (1993) : “It appears that the public exchequer has to be burdened with crores of rupees for providing alternative accommodation to jhuggi dwellers who are trespassers on public land.” Subsequently, in Almitra H. Patel v Union of India (2000), while hearing a PIL for “cleaning up” Delhi because the capital city ought to be a “showpiece”, the same Justice Kirpal declined to provide any rehabilitation for evicted slum-dwellers, because that would have been akin to “rewarding a pickpocket.”

But the human spirit is supposed to triumph against all trials and tribulations. Despite being in the choppiest of waters, an individual, howsoever low his station in life, is supposed to work with renewed vigour and achieve redemption. Is that not the message blared from the ramparts of the Red Fort, or the erudite op-eds of newspapers championing growth and development of a vibrant India?

Soapy, the protagonist of O. Henry’s “The Cop and the Anthem” firmly believed so. I quote from his experience, in extenso:

“…brought a sudden and wonderful change in his soul. He viewed with swift horror the pit into which he had tumbled, the degraded days, life on the streets, unworthy desires, dead hopes, and the lack of motives that made up his existence…. An instantaneous and strong impulse moved him to change his desperate condition. He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. He would find him tomorrow and ask for the position. He would be somebody in the world. He would…”

His resolve could not be manifested. Just as he was gearing up to start life anew, a policeman came and whisked him away for being a jobless vagrant.

The law, in all its majestic equality. Indeed.

DNA/Saurav Datta

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