That the incidence of poverty leads to enhancement of crime rates has been the subject matter of an ancient debate. Modern criminologists and sociologists have also given sufficient effort to decode this relationship. Whereas one may deny the existence of a directly proportional relationship between the two (and rightly so), what one cannot deny is the clear absence of an inverse relationship. Proportionality, even if indirect, exists between the two, thereby making it of utmost importance to analyse the prospects of crime in the post-lockdown poverty and unemployment ridden Indian society. In this piece, I argue how poverty related crimes are slated to rise in the near future and why we need special social justice measures to remove the blot of inequity that the recent lockdown measures have created on the socio-economic standing of the deprived groups.
Crimes are divided into multiple categories in India. Within the penal code itself, crimes are bifurcated on the basis of criminal targets- against human body, against property, against public tranquility etc. The background of every crime is different and is a subject matter of a separate socio legal study. A crime against human body could be a result of enmity or a side effect of a crime targeted towards a property. A crime against property could be a result of desperation for that particular property or an indirect way of extending harm to a human who owns the property. The underlying point, here, is that there cannot be any uniform outbreak of crime because of increasing incidence of poverty. The outbreak is specific and as incomes shoot low, poverty and unemployment shoot high, and property related crimes touch upper circuits. And as discussed above, such property related crimes can also have incidental victims in the form of humans.
What is the mens rea behind such crimes?
In order to understand the underlying intent behind poverty related crimes, one cannot suffice to venture into a black and white discussion. Criminological studies reflect that truth lies somewhere in between, in the grey. In order to understand this intent, one needs to delve deeper into criminal jurisprudence and co-relate the concept of motive along with the intent. No doubt, such poverty related crimes may be driven by an urge to fetch some quick cash. This could be the intention - quick money. What is the motive then? Motive, briefly speaking, is the ultimate driving force or the "pull" behind the criminal act. The motive could be eradication of hunger in a social setup that has failed to treat them equitably. In a parallel scenario, the motive could also be to teach a lesson to the State. This parallel motive is referred to as the theory of relative deprivation. In Atlantic Review of Economics, Ashish Bhardwaj explains this phenomenon as "individuals commit crimes to send a signal to the State that the system they are forced to live in is inherently biased against them and their socio economic standing in the society". I argue, at this juncture and in the words to follow, that the State is seeding mens rea in the minds of deprived groups by failing to fulfil the mandate of social justice.
The present discussion also involves a moral perspective. It is nobody's case that poor people have criminality embedded in their minds. But what is important to be emphasised is that the State can be responsible for creation of circumstances where criminal behaviour appears as a matter of necessity, rather than an extravagant choice. Young (1984) and Currie (1985) refer to this category of crime as an after effect of marginalisation. The lockdown has exposed some of the deepest fault lines of Indian society and has given us a moment to ponder over everything that has gone wrong in the post independence India in matters of governance. The right to development, right to dignified life, right to basic elements of life, right to food and shelter and right to livelihood constituted the web of basic human rights across the world and found meaning under the umbrella of Article 21. Today, the state of marginalisation has compelled us to question whether these fundamental human rights are equally fundamental for one and all in the modern India. At the cost of deviation, I am even obliged to say that the attribution of word 'rights' here sounds like a misnomer. At best, they can be referred as requirements, bare minimum human requirements. By denying these basic requirements today, the State is not only depriving them of Article 21 but also creating compelling circumstances for a large section of society to question the very basis of a legal system that cannot provide them the fodder to live.
Ineffective Criminal Justice System
The possibility of resort to crime is generally affected by the efficacy of the criminal justice system in place. In normal times, criminals can arguably be called as rational economic agents, as Gary Becker puts it. It is so because in normal economic movement, criminals are driven less by compulsions of basic needs and more by a conscious choice. This conscious choice involves a balancing of the nature of their crime with the prospects of apprehension and conviction, which depends upon the efficacy of the criminal justice system. That a man ought to know the natural consequences of his actions is a manifestation of this exposition. Economic crimes are, more often than not, viewed as calculated decisions. Contrary to this norm, in times like present, desperation could be the driving force. On one hand the State prohibits a class of citizens from working and earning their own bread, and on the other hand the State fails to fulfil their basic requirements of food and shelter despite all announcements. Can we say that the State has left them with any possibility of a conscious choice? Can we not say that criminological concept of crime as a result of abject poverty is at play here? Can we not argue that a human in a state of existential crisis knows no consequences? Can we not argue that the legal maxim "Necessitas non habet legem" lies at the core of this entire discussion?
Enhanced Social Justice Measures
In a lockdown that disproportionately curbs livelihood without a structure in place for all sections of society, it can be reasonably argued that the State is creating an existential crisis which is bound to translate into a state of necessity, eventually finding an outlet in the form of criminal behaviour. A very crucial aspect of Article 21 lies in the fact that it puts an onus upon the State for the creation of circumstances wherein the citizens can participate meaningfully in the social activity. If State fails to provide for appropriate circumstances ensuring basic components of "life", the very idea of a social contract falls flat on the ground and citizens cannot be expected to fulfil their end of the bargain. It is, therefore, more important for the State to provide for enhanced social justice measures. Article 39 enjoins the State to ensure adequate means of livelihood for the citizens. Understandably, this directive principle is not justiciable but when State deprives the citizens of their own means of livelihood, social justice enjoins the State to activate its duties embedded in the directive principles and infuse meaning into their right to live. Every instance of enforcement failure in providing food to marginalised groups is adding to the marginalisation and threatening the limb of "Fraternity", as enshrined in the Preamble. Even in the scheme of the Preamble, one must note, Liberty, Equality and Justice constitute a trinity and act as fuel for the fulfilment of Fraternity and in extension, Preamble unequivocally states that it is nothing but Fraternity that secures "dignity of the individual". The constitutional scheme itself exposes the failure.
The principle of social justice involves justice for all sections of the society. When State deprives one section of its livelihood, criminological understanding points that it endangers the other sections too because the ultimate result of such deprivation is social unrest. In a society already facing grave economic concerns, such debilitating standards of governance shall only aggravate the suppression of "life" of citizens and will supplant the existing challenges with a new challenge of enhanced poverty related crime rates.