Gone are the good old days when driving was fun. People who could afford the luxury of a car, would drive for long distances post sunset for relaxation to vent out the frustrations built during the day, enjoying the breeze, since ACs were not common then. Occasionally, one would come across a familiar flower boy or an old man at the corner or signals. People would give them a rupee or two and were in return showered with prayers for a happy and long life. One reached home light and rejuvenated, ready to go back to the grind the next day.
As time passed, cars became a necessity and driving a nightmare. After making one’s way through bottle necks and traffic jams, when one reaches the signal drained and drenched, what awaits you is an unprecedented hoard of car cleaners armed with filthy wipers and spray bottles filled with muddy water, beggars — young and old — seemingly healthy men and women, some wounded, amputated or disguised. Then there are beggars who pretend to be hawkers but are more interested in getting a paltry amount rather than selling what they have. Before you pull your breaks someone has already sprayed your wind shield, the other is tapping your window incessantly to get your attention as they narrate the story of misery and deprivation at home. While you are at the verge of a panic attack, the light turns green but before you celebrate your escape, you find eunuchs or to be more precise, men disguised as women, right in front of your bonnet in grotesque attire, powder and paint, with their dupattas covering your wind shield, leaving you completely baffled before you manage your way out. You brace the same at the signal ahead.
There is a mushroom growth of beggars in the city. Not a single signal, shopping mall, restaurant and street is spared. Almost 80 per cent of the population lives in rural areas with scanty resources of income, they turn towards the cities in search of a better life but are not always successful in doing so. Begging becomes their last resort and then it becomes a profession. Since it is an easy and more profitable way of income, no attempts are made to look for lesser paid unskilled jobs. Then there are professional beggars, which is the most thriving business that has plagued the society. These beggar masters are known for kidnapping children and sometimes parents even give their children voluntarily to these contractors who make these kids beg for the whole day for a small amount of money. They even disfigure and amputate them to gain more sympathy from commuters. During the Afghan war, millions of people migrated to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but later spread to the rest of the country. Afghanis who owned respectable businesses back home turned to scavenging and a number of them resorted to begging for survival. A country that was struggling itself with economy couldn’t take the burden of feeding millions. Since then scavenging has become a profession in itself. Little boys are seen walking like zombies, carrying bags full of discarded waste. They are so absorbed in their hunt for food that they seem oblivious to the stinking rubbish around them.
Beggary is being viewed as a crime and a problem which can only be dealt with high handedness. Policy-makers and law-enforcement agencies have made several unsuccessful attempts to control it. No one is ready to realise the fact that begging is a genuine and a significant problem. People who beg are part of a broader street homelessness problem and are amongst the most vulnerable people in our society. Begging is not just a cause of antisocial behaviour, it is a consequence of it as well.
Most beggars are homeless and addicts, they suffer from high level of unemployment, poor skills and bad health. Most of them are children who are victims of kidnapping, broken homes or born to parents who are beggars or addicts themselves. Personal crises and the trauma of homelessness make them the most vulnerable population. It snatches from them their childhood, innocence and self-respect. I have seen people abusing them but they appear callous and indifferent because they are trapped in a cycle of deprivation and helplessness that they have no choice but to keep begging despite intense humiliation. The fear of being beaten and staying hungry if they are unable to collect a reasonable sum of money keeps them in a ‘fight or flight’ mode, leaving them insensitive to the insults they receive from people. In the absence of social services, they can’t approach anyone for salvation and they are thus unable to escape their predicament.
Research has shown that those who live their lives on the street are desperate to move on but are unable, without the support and services necessary to do so. Use of police force and the criminal justice system will not only be ineffective and costly, but also temporary and unlikely to tackle the root causes of begging and may have the effect of exacerbating the problems facing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Unannounced raids, or picking them up and locking them in jails is not a solution, especially when it is an open secret that these activities are done under the full knowledge and protection of the law-enforcers themselves. They are the ones who grew up side by side with nothing, but the open skies, scorching sun and merciless winds. These have transformed them into uncouth and uncivilised human beings, where all the roads to civility and polity end up in a U-turn.
As the first meaningful step, we can start viewing them as human beings, who were born with the ability to feel and dream like us but poverty and helplessness has converted them into robots who can do nothing but pass the hat to survive. You may not want to give then money, in order to discourage beggary, but don’t treat them harshly either. Let them feel that they are God’s creation too. They are like the flowers in the dirt that have wilted before they could bloom.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2011.
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