Most states in India criminalize beggary to banish “destitutes” from the streets to state run “homes.” This criminalization coupled with a lack of rehabilitation further marginalizes beggars and also destitutes, as the homeless and indigents are often mistaken as beggars. Tarique Mohammad Qureshi challenges and transforms such perceptions on the part of the public and the state and its institutions, by focusing on the circumstances that led to destitution and designs appropriate action.
The New Idea
Having seen the inside of state-run “homes,” Tarique witnessed not only the inhumane conditions within which they reside, but also recognized a larger social universe of citizens—one that highlighted their differences. With the mentally-ill, aged, and homeless alongside beggars, he realized there were no mechanisms to determine the differing situations through which one reached a state of destitution, nor to help formulate appropriate action. By separating their identities and circumstances, Tarique unravels multiple solutions to ensure they are accorded basic human rights and are reintegrated into society.
Tarique delineates the identities of destitutes and throws light on their contexts, to transform existing perceptions of beggars and destitutes that lead to a uniform label and institutional responses. He puts in place processes and builds collaborations that equip institutions to effectively respond. Tarique’s non-confrontational approach and strategy of “positive engagement,” has moved state and non-state institutions to empathize and assume different roles in creating community spaces (instead of institutional spaces) and integrate destitutes. For instance, through his partnership with citizen organizations (COs), hospitals and beggar homes, he has ensured that the mentally ill are provided care and the aged are sent to old-age homes instead of “beggar homes.” He has also organized an Employers Collective comprising employers from the informal sector to testify for their employees who have been wrongly arrested and employ other destitutes. Using “homes” as his entry point, Tarique looks at life-patterns, alternatives, and support systems available for the destitute. He has built partnerships with various COs and government institutions, redeploying existing resources to better diagnose and treat citizens labeled as destitutes.
Rather than create parallel systems, Tarique believes in realigning and equipping existing institutions to effectively address problems that lead to destitution. Over the last five years, he has convinced the Mumbai beggar homes to transform their perceptions and adopt various processes that address the human rights of destitutes: Access to counseling, legal representation, vocational training, employment, healthcare, sanitation, identity proof, and means to reconnect with their families. Tarique is also building an alliance of COs, policymakers, and police to advocate for the repeal of anti-poor legislation and push for affirmative action to protect and rehabilitate destitutes.
Beggary is largely a phenomenon of urban India and has seen a phenomenal rise over the last few years. However, under the laws of twenty states and two union territories, begging in public spaces is punishable with up to ten years of detention. Anti-begging laws assume that individuals freely choose idleness and that idleness is a potential path to criminality. But unlike other criminal acts, beggary is typically the outcome of abject poverty rather than choice. The criminalization of a condition rather than an act, further victimizes the impoverished by subjecting them to state brutality and placing constraints on their liberty.
Under this law, officials from the social welfare department (assisted by the police) conduct raids to arbitrarily pick up beggars who are then tried in a special beggars’ court and, if convicted, sent to a “certified institution” or beggar home. There are over 300,000 beggars in Mumbai, 75,000 in Kolkata, 60,000 in Delhi and 56,000 in Bangalore. However, mistakes abound in a country where the line that separates beggars from those destitute is getting slimmer, and 78 million in India are homeless. Often those who look unkempt and miserable, like rickshaw operators, waiters and other daily wage laborers, also live on the streets, and are rounded up despite their protests. Although they are employed by the informal sector, their employers do not testify before the authorities out of ignorance and fear of the law. Moreover, employers do not reinstate them, as they fear the employee must have done something wrong. Over 70 percent of those arrested, including youth and the elderly, are not beggars. They may be detained for years, having no means to prove otherwise and their families have no way of knowing their whereabouts.
Government institutions are not equipped to differentiate among the large population they routinely round up. The aged, differently-abled, and mentally ill share spaces in the homes with children and able-bodied women and men. The mentally ill, destitute women (many victims of sexual abuse) and senior citizens, who need the protection of the state and rehabilitation, are made to serve sentences in inhuman conditions with complete disregard to their physical and psychological condition. No medical or psychiatric assistance is provided and their conditions worsen with confinement.
There are over several hundred homes in India, each holding approximately 1,500 to 2,000 people. Overcrowded and unhygienic, the conditions are worse than a prison. Some years ago, the national media raised a storm when several beggars died of cholera at a home in Delhi, underscoring the horrific conditions that prevail. Human rights violations are rampant as many of those picked up do not receive legal representation and custodial violence is common.
Tarique sees the state only addressing the symptoms of the problem of beggary and not its causes. While the text of the law aims to prevent beggary through training and rehabilitation, the focus of law enforcement has been restricted to arresting destitutes. Trainings in the institutions either do not exist or have become completely non-functional. After spending years in custody, they acquire no skills to assist them to lead a different life. The fact that the law also includes snake charmers, street performers, and fortune-tellers further amplifies the problem. While such occupations have been banned, no alternatives have been provided. With increasing migration from rural to urban India and the number of destitutes that enter a city, each of these problems are amplified. Rather than exploring solutions to tackle the root causes of beggary, the state makes the poor invisible from society.
Given the many layers of the problem, Tarique follows a multi-pronged approached to create an impact. His work can be broadly classified into three levels: (i) he tackles the immediate needs of destitutes within the homes and on the streets (ii) he advocates for the repeal of law that criminalizes beggary, and (iii) he is building a framework for the long-term rehabilitation of destitutes.
Tarique believes that while advocating for the repeal of the law in the longer term, one cannot be blind to existing realities. There is an immediate need to ensure a better quality of life for destitutes within the existing framework of the law. Understanding his role more as a facilitator than a provider, he designs initiatives to encourage existing institutions to provide better services and opportunities. Central to Tarique’s work is his strategy of positive-engagement and appreciative inquiry. Rather than use a confrontational approach to highlight lapses, he acknowledges the contexts and contribution of each stakeholder, to encourage them to use their skills and experiences to facilitate change.
This approach has helped Tarique build strong and long-term relationships with various state and non-state stakeholders. Through his organization, Koshish, he has created ties with government hospitals and ambulance service providers to provide free healthcare services for destitutes within homes. A full-time nurse is dedicated to facilitate their consultations at the hospital and a psychiatrist visits the home every month to counsel and prescribe medication.
Tarique has sensitized the judiciary and drawn attention to the existing systems limitations by understanding the background of those arrested and differentiating beggars from those who are not. He has collaborated with the Magistrate’s office to legally permit Koshish to represent the destitutes before the authorities. Through this intervention, they collect data and present evidence on those arrested. Koshish has introduced a “Call Home” program in the homes, which allows those arrested to call their families, inform them of their whereabouts, and reconnect with them. This enables them to ensure that employed destitutes are released immediately, old and ailing destitutes are referred to old-age homes and shelters run by COs, youth are connected to their families, and the mentally ill who require hospitalization are referred to the appropriate institutions. Tarique is building relationships with law students to represent destitutes and provide appropriate evidence going forward. Koshish has also created a network of informal sector employers, the Employers Collective. Through awareness building and sensitization, he has engaged over forty employers whose homeless employees were arrested to testify before judicial authorities and reinstate them. As Koshish counsels beggars and mentally prepares them to give up begging, employers from the Employers Collective have also begun to provide authorities with affidavits to provide destitutes with employment and release them from state custody.
Tarique has also partnered with the Ministry of Human Resource Development to extend its existing program to provide vocational training in the slums to the homes. Through this program, destitutes undergo a three-month course on building their skills and receive a certificate from the government at the end of the course. He has also convinced administrators of the homes to start activities and create spaces where the mentally ill are free to engage in various activities. As a result, the mentally ill are asked to stay inside the homes only at night. Convinced that acts of violence are reduced when people know each other, Tarique has initiated sports facilities in the homes, where the inmates and staff play as one team. Increased interaction among staff and inmates has significantly reduced rates of custodial violence. To date, Koshish has provided direct and indirect support to over 5,000 beggars and homeless destitutes. Upon the request of the Delhi Government, Tarique is replicating his work in homes in Delhi and is piloting in Bangalore.
To improve the conditions of destitutes on the streets, Koshish has undertaken active sensitization programs with magistrates, police officials, and the staff of homes to educate them on the realities faced by the homeless. They engage the police to recognize the discretionary powers in the law and explore the positive roles that they can play. Koshish also creates spaces where the homeless and police can interact to understand each other’s contexts. Koshish has partnered with COs to facilitate access to birth certificates and subsidized food provided by the government. They work with Sulabh International, Ashoka Senior Fellow Bindeshwar Pathak’s organization, to provide the homeless with identity cards and subsidized access to sanitation facilities across Bombay. The possession of identity cards has significantly reduced arrests. Koshish has also formed partnerships with COs from different states to trace the families of destitutes who have migrated, for the purposes of identification, repatriation in appropriate cases, and follow-up support.
Building on this work, Tarique is advocating for the repeal of a law that criminalizes beggary. He is a part of the Committee of the Commissioner of Chief Secretary in Delhi that has recently submitted a report rationalizing the repeal of the law and is now up for wider consultation. Tarique is also in discussions with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to put in place an affirmative policy for rehabilitation of destitutes in the next five years. Toward this end, he is conducting a study in five cities, to gather reliable data on the causes of beggary, gauge skill levels, and narrow possible opportunities for them. Tarique is designing a scheme where the government will provide the funding and broader framework for the rehabilitation of destitutes and COs will be responsible for its execution.
Tarique moved to New Delhi from a small hill town in the Himalayan foothills, to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and aspired to join the Indian Administrative Services. One winter night, as he was walking back, he saw many people sleeping on the sidewalk, covering themselves with newspapers. Coming from a small town, the sight of newspapers sticking to their bodies shocked him. Tarique struck up a conversation with an old man, which really shook him up. He realized that thousands died silently on the streets, while life moved around them without pause.
Feeling compelled to act and understand more about their lives, Tarique volunteered with a CO in Delhi that ran shelters for the homeless. Over two years, he gained insights into their lives. He began to understand what brought them to the streets and their daily realities. However, Tarique realized that he was not equipped to respond or deal with situations where the destitutes were in conflict with the law, e.g. they resorted to theft or drugs. Not finding any structures or institutions that dealt with these problems effectively, Tarique resolved to find solutions that would address these concerns.
Abandoning his plans to join the civil services, Tarique joined Tata Institute of Social Services (TISS) in Bombay to pursue his master’s degree in Criminology and Correctional Behavior. As a part of the coursework, he was required to undertake two days of fieldwork every week. He opted to work with a CO that worked to enable independence among homeless youth by training them to enhance their skills. However, one morning, a group of boys with whom he worked were missing. On enquiring about their whereabouts, Tarique learned that they had been picked up by the police and taken to a beggar’s home. This was the first time he’d heard about the criminalization of beggary or about the existence of state-run homes. He immediately went to visit the home where the boys were taken and was shocked to see the inhuman conditions within which the young, elderly, able-bodied, women, and mentally ill were kept.
Tarique read and learned about the law and issues surrounding the homes. He observed that there were no efforts in India to tackle the problems within the state-run homes and was convinced that he had to take the initiative. However, the TISS management was wary about permitting Tarique to start a new initiative, as continuity of work was critical to the institution. He persisted, and convinced them to allow him to carry out his fieldwork within the homes, assuring them that this was not a temporary stint and the initiative would be successful.
While Tarique was convinced that the law needed to be completely repealed, he was conscious that the immediate rights of the destitutes could not be compromised. Not limiting himself to two days of fieldwork, Tarique worked seven days a week, while pursuing his master’s degree. He built relationships with the authorities, as he believed the government’s collaboration and ownership over the process was imperative. Central to Tarique’s belief system is that lasting change can only come from positive engagement with stakeholders. Instead of making people defensive and reducing their morale by criticizing them, he believes in harnessing their positive energies to build ownership. Tarique started by organizing a workshop for the staff, to allow them to share their experiences, special moments and challenges. He won over the staff and inmates by first tackling non-controversial issues such as clean drinking water and medical help and then expanding to address other issues.
Believing that TISS as a premier institution in the field of social work should be engaged in more than academics, Tarique founded Koshish in 2006 with a formal partnership with TISS. He is passionate about seeing systems and institutions in India become more empathetic in dealing with the poor.