Few things disrupt public life on roads and streets with more audacity than beggars chasing people for a paltry amount of money. It is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon to be interrupted, often insolently, while driving a car or on foot, by a barefoot child, a seemingly healthy woman carrying a bandaged infant, or an aging man waving a few pages of evening papers at you. They have become a big source of distraction for the public. Most of them shamelessly shock commuters in an attempt to generate maximum sympathy. They have horrific appearances or disabilities that are a convenient tool for extorting whatever little money they can, walking, limping or roller-skating with amputated legs up and down a road all day. For some commuters it does arouse an element of pity, while for many of them it is no more than a sickening nuisance.
“Because they won’t leave alone my windshield and start cleaning it with a dirty cloth or incessantly knock at the window, I have kept denominations of Rs 500 inside my dashboard to give them as soon as they come near my car,” says a resident of Lahore.
But most people, mainly women, see these beggars as more of a blessing in disguise than irritating entities. They find beggars to be the most readily available recipients of charity (or sadqah nikalna) on a regular basis whenever commuting around the city. It is often their philanthropic spirit that makes them fork out money.
In the same spirit one woman says: “My husband and I don’t give money to these women beggars, but when we see an old man we always give him because he has to feed his entire family.” People have different justifications for giving charity to different kinds of beggars who they believe appear to be needy.
Though there is no doubt that many people resort to begging because of poverty, at the same time they exploit their economic condition to earn a certain level of subsistence. They employ different methods to get easy money which they can “earn” standing by the roadside, often taking shelter under a tree or sitting while the traffic signal turns green, instead of earning the same amount labouring all day under any kind of weather conditions. This is why many physically fit young men are usually seen begging on the streets.
If on the one hand the affluent see beggars as a medium to purifying (or legalize) their wealth, the beggars find this occupation the easiest way to earn a living. Hence this relationship has abetted beggary and turned it into an organized form.
Beggary has become a profession for most of those who are part of a much larger industry that recruits, trains and relocates men, women and children. Two things that drive this industry are ‘shock value’ and religious connotations of charity. To increase the shock value of innocent beggars the industry, run by a menacing mafia, has enough tricks up its sleeve. Acid and cigarette burns, amputation, and starvation are some of them and pose a serious threat to an individual’s health. Few of them affect recruits for the rest of their lives, while others may be painful temporarily, and therefore capable of incurring maximum sympathy only for short-term purposes. The profession, of course, has a host of idiosyncrasies attached to it, including glue sniffing, drug abuse (even among very young children), minor criminal tendencies, prostitution, sexual abuse and coercion.
“The people I worked for made me beg and use drugs. I was addicted to ‘solution’,” says Ansar, a boy rescued off the streets of Hira Mandi, Lahore’s red-light area, by the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau set-up in 2004.
“They burned my arm and my stomach with solution, so that I could beg more,” he says when inquired about a scar on his arm. The left side of his entire chest is burnt down to his stomach. “I went to a doctor in the neighbourhood who took me to a hospital where I had to stay for a month and a half,” he adds. Ansar had to give Rs70 to Rs80 to the Mafioso everyday.
The bureau, working for the rescue and rehabilitation of destitute children, has rescued over 500 children from the streets of Lahore as part of its pilot project. These children have come from cities that include Kohat, Rahim Yar Khan, Multan and Rawalpindi. There are enough recruits for the industry to be exported from the cities of their origin without affecting the beggar population there.
Explaining the industry’s modus operandi CPWB chairperson and adviser to the chief minister on children’s rights, Dr Faiza Asghar, says that beggar children earn 200-250 rupees everyday, but what happens is that either their fathers are addicts and take away all the money or there is an intermediary mafia that takes the children from poor parents for begging all day in exchange of providing for the child. The mafia then keeps most part of the earning — 180 or 190 out of 200 — and the child is left with only 10 rupees to take home.
Haider from Kasur is caught up in similar arrangements. He has been begging at the Lahore Railway Station lately. “I was 10 years old when I ran from home; then Bashir Dare-ala took me, but I ran from home again, but he got hold of me one more time. The gang took money from my family, Rs500 or sometimes Rs1,000, saying they provide for my meals three times a day and give me shoes and clothes,” he says.
The intermediary entity of the beggar mafia exploits both the poor and the rich taking advantage of the immense economic divide between the two in our society. Neither gain any benefits. The poor remain eternally poor and the affluent ones’ money cannot reach the truly needy. In the presence of such networks in society, the public alone cannot deal with the evil.
Recently, the Punjab government has taken steps to deal with a major group of recruits for this industry, the children. The CPWB was set-up under the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Act, 2004. It carries out periodic rescue operations in alliance with the police squad. Over 82 operations since last December have been undertaken, based on information gathered from its pockets in civil society or open reception centres operating at strategic locations where beggar children spend time, are given temporary care and finally rescued. The bureau is given custody of the rescued children, who are then admitted to the Child Protection Institution where they live, attend school and play. Upon identification, the Child Protection Court hands over custody to their parents/guardians giving them guarantee that they will not be seen on the streets again.
Dr Asghar claims that among the 500 children, the repeaters are only 20 who have been seen by the patrol squad on the streets, only six of whose parents/guardians have been fined up to Rs1,000, two jailed for three months and two for 20 days under court orders.
In the event of rescuing children, certain gangs have been busted whose number the bureau puts at 14. These include gangs like Kala Ungal Kaat, Zafar Urf Zafri Karachi Wala, Ashraf Urf Kala and Imam Bakhsh Urf Nathu gangs. They have been put behind bars or are facing trials. Counting the bureau’s accomplishments she says: “We have caught them from inside the sewers, from Data Darbar, supposedly worshipping or from the Minar-i-Pakistan making children sell drugs.”
However, Dr Asghar says that undertaking one massive operation clean-up would be almost impossible because in such an operation the mafia goes underground. It has a tight network whereby one gang instantly gets to know that a child from another gang in a far-off locality was picked up by the authorities.
The law that prohibits beggary and gives the powers to arrest to the police has existed for 46 years before the PDNCA. However, the increasing presence of beggars at shrines, on the roads, or in the markets, is proof that the police has not yet been mobilized to begin a crackdown on the ma..