KOSHISH – ON DECRIMINALISING POVERTY AND DESTITUTION
Koshish was initiated in August 2006 as a response to this systemic injustice and criminalization of poverty that was happening under the Beggary Prevention Law. It wasn’t a planned strategy but an emotional response to extreme violation that one student witnessed in a custodial institution closer to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences campus. Koshish is committed to the cause of destitute and urban poor. It’s main focus is to have thee Beggary Prevention Legislations repealed and replace tit with policies and support systems for the poor and abandoned. Koshish started work in Mumbai and in 2009, on the request from Social Welfare Department, Delhi Government, work was extended to Delhi. In 2012, Koshish program was extended to Bihar, in collaboration with the State government.
KEY INTERVENTION AREAS
Koshish works at multiple levels, right from extending direct support to the person on the street or custodial institutions to engaging with the governments on law and policy. The aim is to address the issue of beggary, homelessness and destitution in an integrated way. While the intervention begins at our work with the population in custody under BPBA, 1959 and assist their reintegration and repatriation in societal structures, we also reach out to the destitute and homeless population on the streets and understand their social, economic, cultural, psychological contexts. By engaging with daily concerns and issues of survival, protection and growth of these groups, we are able to reach out to them more effectively. As part of its advocacy intervention, Koshish initiated a dialogue about the relevance of beggary law (BPBA, 1959) in today’s context and engaged positively with the governments seeking the repeal of the law. Maharashtra, Bihar and Delhi governments have, in principle, agreed with the need for change in the law. Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India constituted a 4 member Special Committee to prepare a draft for Central law on Destitution. The team leader of Koshish was one of the 4 members of the Committee, played an important role in drafting of, “The Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2016”.
Research has been yet another important aspect of our intervention. It is not just to create empirical evidence of what the beggary legislation has been doing to the poor people but also to challenge the framework of the rehabilitation present currently. Based on its experience of several years, Koshish has developed a process that involves a cycle where first a person is prepared mentally to come out of begging and getting prepared to work and earn livelihood. This is also the phase where one’s emotional stability is assessed and social skills are developed. This is then supplemented by these trainings with life skills which enable the clients to deal effectively with the challenges of everyday life and ready him /her for community based rehabilitation.
Responding to the need of protecting the livelihoods of persons who were arrested, ‘Employers’ Collective’ was started. We took it up as one of the major strategy towards the protection of the rights of the homeless people and today it has become a strong and stable group of employers who understand the approach that we work with, proving to be a major stakeholder as far as economic stability is concerned. In such situations, institutional placement comes up as an effective alternative, especially for women, unless the person is capable enough of independent living. So we develop individual plan according to specific needs (training, employment, temporary shelter, medical care etc.) and try to shift them in shelter homes or institutions catering to those needs.
Broadly, each of our programs is actually a step towards getting the person out of destitution. Legal Aid, Medical support, vocational training, employers’ collective, family reintegration, research, advocacy and everything else is aimed towards refraining the person from begging. However, this is done not through physically preventing the person but enabling him/ her to support oneself, by responding to specific vulnerabilities and ensuring there isn’t a need left to beg. Challenges and Way Ahead:Working on this project has been sometimes exhilarating, sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes hope creating experience. While people on streets themselves provided tremendous strength from their approach towards life, it has been huge struggle otherwise. However, when Koshish started, we knew that the area we were entering into was largely unexplored and therefore would require lot of patience and strategic flexibility to learn and unlearn, deal with the resistance that systems would offer, but little did we know about the scale of unpredictability and the challenges.
Persons processed under the Beggary law are not the ones that people generally care for. Challenge begins from this point itself. As the larger public opinion about this group tends to be negative, it becomes extremely difficult to convince people to provide support for the work. In fact even to establish that there is a need for work with this group has been extremely challenging. Same has been the resistance from the state. While there has been an acknowledgement from the states about law being abusive and exploitative, states’ are still far from doing what any progressive and pro people government should be doing. While Koshish has received significant support from the institutions in implementing its rehabilitation program, governments are yet to take the law concerns to logical conclusions. Vulnerability of relations on the streets adds to the challenges we face as an organization. While the vulnerability and need for intervention is well acknowledged now, we learnt under most testing situations about the different levels of exploitation present within the system itself. People on streets develop their own survival mechanisms. In the fight for survival on the streets, there are victims and exploiters. Street life is full of exploitation and survival becomes the core goal for the person. There has been a constant dilemma about the extent to which they should see Koshish as their support system. Some of the ‘regulars’ of street life came to us as a complete ‘shock’. Coming from another context and socialization process, it has been extremely difficult and challenging to deal with our own fears, anxiety and doubts when faced with brutal realities of street life.
Unlike the present situation, law must aid and protect those who are caught in the web of helplessness, homelessness, and destitution. Mental illness, old age, breaking down of families, extreme poverty, gender discrimination for transgender, disease like leprosy, drug dependence, physical disability etc leads to homelessness and destitution. While we continue with our interventions providing immediate support, our focus is to get the law repealed and facilitate a comprehensive, rehabilitative law/ policy. There are concerns that have been there since the beginning of the work, and we still haven’t been able to find sufficient answers to them. However, we will keep attempting. Keeping the faith, gaining strength from each step taken, we commit to move further with growing efforts and clarity of purpose.It’s high time that we convert our ‘punitive framework’ into ‘rehabilitative response’ and build capacities so that person can support self. The current legal approach addresses the issue from the wrong end. The real solution, perhaps, is to recognize and combat structural injustices in society and expand rehabilitation options. It is crucial to have a legal and political system that does not exclude the most vulnerable from the development process.