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Dhaka Tribune

The right to beg

Update : 27 Aug 2013, 05:22 PM

Dhaka witnesses an annual influx of people seeking assistance during the time of Eid-ul-Fitr. Mostly women, these people are covered in rags and often have snot-nosed babies slung over their shoulders and hips.

Although it may sound morally appalling, such “original” destitutes are helping to perpetuate a process which is partially responsible for ensuring an abundant supply of motivated, physically fit beggars. It is, nevertheless, very encouraging that the issue of beggars has not been totally ignored.

The High Court on January 2, 2011 ordered the government and police to implement the relevant provision on street begging under the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance 1976. One of its key provisions stipulates that “whoever in any street or public place begs … shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one month” (Section 81).

However, some have argued that without investigating and exhausting the available options for removing beggars from their destitute state (such as welfare payments and support), this provision contravenes constitutional “right to life” guarantees.

A further positive move by the judiciary was the issuance of a suo moto rule following newspaper reports in 2010 and 2011, asking the government to explain why a directive to stop forced pan-handling through mutilation should not be issued.

The government responded by declaring it would form the National Child Welfare Board to monitor childrens’ rights issues including risky child labour. It said it would seek to ensure education and health services, alongside Shishu Kalyan Boards envisaged to be formed at district and sub-district levels.

However, little is known about the implementation status of the above.

Irrespective of their age, the alienation of beggars from society and the harsh treatment destitute children in particular have to endure in their daily life is cruel and compels them to a harsh life.

One interesting question which is beyond the remit of the prevailing discourse is how to find a way to measure the supply of beggars, the amounts being earned, and whether it is satisfying their “marginal utility” levels.

Beggars will continue to beg unless the opportunity cost of begging is not set “higher than not begging.” Because such a cost would also infringe upon the freedom of an individual to seek charity for reasons beyond their control, we may need to consider a new policy on the notion of a “right to beg.”

This type of policy innovation should succinctly articulate the conditions under which a citizen of Bangladesh will be allowed to beg in public.

Such an exercise, although very much bold in approach, would help to better define the different roles and responsibilities of the various ministries and departments which are involved in disbursing public resources, in particular for ensuring that those who are physically disabled, are not excluded from their entitlements.

Once a “right to beg” framework is in place, citizens will need to be engaged in a formal monitoring process in order to ensure that their areas of residence and work do not have any children, physically disabled or elderly, being deprived of their rights to public provisions. This process is likely to get an impetus from the Right to Information Act 2009.

A “right to beg” policy framework would make the entire government machinery more proactive in better combating the sources of structural injustice which coerce destitute people to resort to begging to eke out a life of subsistence, dependant on the will of God. Government departments would become more conscious of their duties to support welfare if only to save public embarrassment.

Such a policy action should trigger a national behavioural change and aid in taking a more conscious and concerted effort both horizontally (within government), and vertically (government-to-citizen), in eradicating both man-made and natural sources of such social exclusion.

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