Hasn’t it become impossible to keep track of the number of times you brush away a child standing at your car window begging for money in exchange for ‘duas’? We also lose count of the number of times we have all placated ourselves by either giving the child loose change or by telling ourselves that not giving them cash has helped us prevent the vicious and predatory cycle of begging from repeating itself.
For you and I, this is quite literally a win-win situation. Paying the child off lets us feel benevolent, and not paying them makes us ‘socially responsible’.
The reality is that we really don’t care — which is unfortunate, especially since there is now a legal framework in place to deal with street children, at least in the Punjab.
If there was ever a time to take ‘the law into our own hands’, this is it. The Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children Bill 2004 gives the provincial government the exclusive right to rescue begging children from the streets, assume custody of them under the Child Protection Court and then rehabilitate them in special centres, providing them with food, clothing, counselling and schooling. The child’s parents are then brought in for questioning and the Child Protection Bureau (CPB) has the final say on whether or not they qualify for financial assistance, micro-finance, skills training or a stint in prison.
All one has to do is dial 1121.
When I called 1121 to report my daily sighting of three street children near Hussain Chowk on Monday, I was told the centre would “try and pick them up as soon as possible”. I called in the next day and a very courteous representative told me that the centre only manages around two or three rescue missions a month because they simply don’t have the resources to manage more. Lahore Child Protection Bureau assistant district head Ulfat Abbas said: “Well, we don’t have the resources that Rescue 1122 has. We only have one van but we do what we can. If more people called in then we would do more.”
This begs the question: why don’t more people call in? Is it because we’re so apathetic that we don’t feel sympathy for a five-year-old begging on the streets? Is it because we don’t really think the government will ever do anything about the problem? Or is it simply because we don’t even know that a programme to rehabilitate street children exists? For most of the people I talked to, it was a combination of all three factors. “I frankly never knew there was a place to call. But if I’m being honest I don’t know if it would make any difference if I did,” says Madiha Haroon, a Beaconhouse National University student.
Granted, public participation does not guarantee that the government will be able to eliminate the menace of child begging but it does give us — the public — the right to complain. Personally, I am inclined to adhere to the ‘if you don’t try to make it better you’re only making it worse’ logic. It therefore becomes my duty to call in every time I see a begging, starving child, before I can complain that the government is shirking its responsibility and allowing an entire generation to be squandered on the streets rather than succeed in school.
“A lot of this is political. When the programme was started in 2005 there was a lot of publicity but ever since the new provincial government has taken the helm they have tried to debunk it,” says founder of the programme and former CPB chairperson Faiza Asgher. Politics inevitably has a role to play in every public scheme instituted in our country but then again so does public participation. The latter is presently just as ineffective as the government.
“There is simply no sense of civic duty in our people. We all perpetuate it. Let us just consider this: if we call 1121 the next time we see a child on the street and the authorities actually pick him or her up, that child’s life will change,” says child psychiatrist Amna Wahab, adding, “The child will be washed, fed, clothed and schooled and is less likely to end up on the streets. What we need to do is put enough pressure on the government to act on this law and the mechanism in place to implement it.”
Ulfat Abbas tells me that the average beggar has three or four of his kids in ‘the business’. “This man will probably earn Rs1,600 a day from his children, why would he bother working then? Also the younger the child the more likely they are to make money. That’s why we keep seeing younger and younger kids taking to the trade,” he said.
The Child Protection Bureau (CPB) has five offices in other Punjab districts and yet the response rate is underwhelming. One would think that our government, having the right to pick children off the streets would exercise this privilege more often, especially given that thousands of children are seen begging on streets all over the country. This is not being done and one of the major gaps in the strategy seems to be virtually no media attention given to the issue.
That said, this organisation’s efforts, and its purpose, are commendable. The CPB has three squads for all of Lahore and these are charged to deal with domestic violence, lost children and beggars. One doesn’t need to be a genius to see that their budget as well as human resources have been stretched far too thin. Public participation would shed light on the issue and also place pressure on the government to pursue the matter more effectively.
“One thing no one wants to admit is that the issue isn’t being promoted because we don’t really know how to take it up if it were. This is a mammoth task and if we were serious then it would require more resources devoted to the cause. It would need to be 24 hours a day,” says NGO worker Shireen Tariq. Calling a number isn’t enough but it is definitely a start if we are serious about eliminating child labour and beggary in this country.
I recently took up a challenge meted out by a 1121 operator. She said that if enough people called in then there would be more pressure on the government to take the programme seriously. So I have stopped giving alms to begging children because I realise I am doing them no favours by furthering their suffering on our streets. Instead I have taken to carrying a packet of Cadbury’s éclairs to be handed out and every time I see a street child I make a call. It has been three days and 23 calls. The centre now knows my name and I think I am getting on their nerves.
Which is kind of the point.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 20th, 2011.