The ongoing pandemic has brought misery in the most unimaginative ways.

Viral videos last week showed 450 Indians working in Saudi Arabia being put into detention centres in Shumaisi, Jeddah as they were found begging.

Stuffed inside detention centres, some of these people are literally seen crying, protesting against the callous attitude of the Indian government which has not bothered to get them back during the pandemic.

One of them is heard saying, “We have seen workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka being helped by the authorities of their countries and sent back to their respective countries. However, we are stuck here."

Another said in a video appeal,“My brother passed away and my mother is critical. I want to be sent back to India.”

These are migrants from various parts of the country who had gone there to earn a living. But with covid-19 putting an end to most economic activity their work permits were cancelled.

Several countries consider begging a public nuisance. In England and Wales begging is illegal under the Vagrancy Act of 1824, but it does not carry a jail sentence and is not enforced in many cities. Most frequently it is enforced on public transport.

India is in a unique position on this vital issue where lakhs of impoverished and dishoused people are made to bear the tag of ‘beggars’. While no government has officially decriminalised beggary most pretends that the harsh and inhuman Anti-Beggary Act does not exist, leaving the issue in suspended animation.

In a country where bhik, bhiksha, bhikhha is a way of living for many, including kinnars and Buddhists and Jains, the matter has been left to the discretion of the states. Around 20 states have adopted the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act of 1959 which prescribes a penalty of 3 to 10 years’ imprisonment.

With activists arguing that the police applied the law arbitrarily with the power to detain or arrest the poor and homeless, including nomadic communities, street performers and migrant workers whose figures the government does not have, after a long fight led by former IAS officer Harsh Mander and argued by noted lawyer Colin Gonsalves, in 2017 the Delhi High Court ordered the decriminalisation of the act of beggary.

“The law against begging is one of the single most oppressive laws against poor and destitute people in a country that has no social protection net,” argued Harsh Mander.

In a landmark judgment the court held the government responsible for the presence of beggars saying it was proof of the failure of the state to provide basic amenities to citizens.

With underprovision of homeless shelters, thousands are forced to sleep under flyovers and on pavements, leaving them vulnerable to harassment by the police, said Mander.

“The state simply cannot fail to do its duty to provide a decent life to its citizens and add insult to injury by arresting, detaining and… imprisoning persons who beg in search for essentials of bare survival,” said the Delhi High Court.

“People beg on the streets not because they wish to, but because they need to. Begging is their last resort to subsistence… Criminalising begging is a wrong approach to deal with the underlying causes of the problem (and) violates the fundamental rights of some of the most vulnerable people,” it said in its order.

After the verdict the Centre promised the High Court that it would bring forth a Bill to decriminalise beggary aimed at rehabilitation. But within a year it backtracked on its promise. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment which had drafted a bill to decriminalise begging and rehabilitate beggars said it had dropped the proposal to amend the law.

The bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice C Hari Shankar was not amused. “You (Centre) were taking one year time to produce this draft bill. It is very unfortunate."

Then the Centre's standing counsel Monika Arora and advocate Harsh Ahuja told the court, “We are not decriminalising it. The proposal is dropped. The central government has no Act on begging. The states are empowered to do on their own.”

In other words the Union government has once more washed its hands of this crucial matter.

Delhi alone has around 50,000 homeless people officially, though activists say it could be three times that number, who can be put behind bars by high handed cops with impunity and no redress, wherever a major crime occurs, or if there is a VIP in town, to show their alertness.

In normal times they are unseen, unheard and unwanted.