Begging for salvation

Published: March 22, 2011
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Can you save a child from the begging mafia simply by dialling a number?

Can you save a child from the begging mafia simply by dialling a number?

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.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • Nawaz
    Mar 22, 2011 - 8:39PM

    Ah, glad to know atleast someone has started. And i’m pretty sure your way is the best amongst the options we have when confronted by child beggars. It always pains me to turn them away and confounds me when i think that the money i give the child would help him/her in no way and would more likely end up filling the need of a junky parent. But now that i know i have a third option, its the one i’d like to take everytime.Recommend

  • saad hafeez
    Mar 22, 2011 - 9:42PM

    Wow, I had no idea this existed in Pakistan, thanks for raising awareness! Recommend

  • Copper
    Mar 22, 2011 - 10:05PM

    Great work, and unexpected. Must confess I didn’t know the number, then again, I am from Sindh where eve 1122 doesn’t exists. Don’t know when badshah qaim ali shah will wake up and actually do anything.Recommend

  • Palvasha von Hassell
    Mar 23, 2011 - 12:21AM

    I’m very impressed by Maria’s inspiring civic sense and concern for these children, and by her determination to be heard by the authorities. I especially like her attitude that “if you don’t try to make it better you’re only making it worse”. This is exactly the sentiment that should be fostered in Pakistan at large. She is also doing great work in actually informing people about the Lahore Child Protection Bureau. Since institutions are strengthened by the efforts of people, it would be wise of the Bureau to carry out a campaign to inform the generel public about its services. Recommend

  • A R Khan
    Mar 23, 2011 - 1:39AM

    Excellent and very unexpected piece. Honestly, I had no idea this program even existed. Thanks for raising awareness. Recommend

  • malang
    Mar 23, 2011 - 6:41PM

    Thank you all for your comments.
    I just wanted to add that should anyone have any problems getting through to the authorities while calling in to 1121, it is best to do so later on in the day and inform them of where you saw the street children.
    Many street children beg at assigned ‘adda’s’ and tend to frequent the same areas, if the CPB can’t catch them one by one, they can certainly be pressured to do something about the regulars who always beg at the same junction. Recommend

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