Beg to live or live to beg?
Every social problem that we encounter demands a solution, but a practical solution can be arrived at only through an intelligent understanding of the nature, extent and root causes of the problem.
Beggary has become a social problem
The beggar question is no exception to this rule. While the beggar in Sri Lanka has always been an object of charitable attention, the problem as such has seldom been a subject of rigid scientific inquiry.
Of course, there have been a few local studies, (for example, Professor Nandasena Ratnapala’s ‘The Beggar in Sri Lanka,’) but no definite research has been conducted on the problem in its entirety and proper perspective.
In 2006, Social Services Department of the Social Service and Social Welfare Ministry conducted a research study titled, ‘Action Research on Social Integration of Street People in Colombo City’.
The University of Sri Jayewardenepura and University of Colombo also made a couple of research studies during the past few years.
Conservative figures indicate that from 55,000 beggars in Sri Lanka in 1995, it has risen to 85,000 at present. A recent study done by a research group of the Colombo University has revealed that 79 per cent beggars in Sri Lanka are physically sound and most of them are free of chronic diseases. Nearly half of them are against granting houses or lands for them to settle in and nearly 84 per cent are against providing them an employment while 90 per cent are against social benefits.
These are startling revelations and truly projects the behind-the -screen picture of the problem.
It is obvious that, beggary has become a social problem of great magnitude and grave concern in Sri Lanka. Begging is no longer limited to a few stray beggars driven to seeking alms as a last resort. It has become a profession for some, a way of life for others, and more horrific still, a lucrative racket for unscrupulous and ruthless operators, who have spawned a virtual ‘beggar mafia’, using destitute and helpless as commodities.
Present beggars of Sri Lanka are much superior to their previous generations. In simple words, we can say that they have brought corporate professionalism in their jobs. In some of the big cities turnover from the begging is millions of rupees every day and number of big shotguns of the society are managing this business.
It is very easy to see these beggars performing various new and old tricks for begging in buses, busy markets, and parks and around public places.
Some of the beggars of Sri Lanka are so intelligent that they use all kinds of the psychological and emotional tricks to make people feel sympathetic towards them. It is said that an average beggar earns around rupees 500 per day and some expert ‘professional’ even fetch a four-figure income.
There is American word known as panhandle, which means ‘beg by accosting people in the street and asking for money.’ There is also “aggressive panhandling.” Its definition may vary. In the USA, aggressive panhandling generally involves the solicitation of donations in an intimidating or intrusive manner.
Examples may include, extending the head and both arms, or even the hand, into a car window to solicit, approaching individuals from behind, as they are exiting their vehicles, to solicit, refusing to take “No” for an answer or following an individual, soliciting near Super markets, Banks etc. It is quite obvious that what we find here in Sri Lanka most of the time belongs to this aggressive panhandling.
Due to these reasons, in most of the advanced countries in the world begging in public is restricted. For example, in many provinces in Canada, the Safe Streets Act has been introduced to restrict specific kinds of begging.
In 2001 this law survived a court challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The law was further upheld by the Court of Appeal for Ontario in January 2007.
In many larger cities in the USA, panhandling has been banned.
In May 2010, police in the city of Boston started cracking down on panhandling in the streets, and were conducting an educational outreach to residents advising them not to give to panhandlers. In the UK, begging is illegal under the Vagrancy Act. In Japan begging is illegal under the Article 1, 22 of Minor Offense Law.
Impact on Tourism
Meanwhile, the Tourist agencies maintain that the increase in beggars will have a negative impact on the tourist industry.
While the industry, at present, is on an upward trend, begging from tourists has increased proportionately, with the increase in beggars, which tourist experts say will have a negative impact on the growing industry. Begging will also give rise to yet another deadly phenomenon - the sexual abuse of children by tourists, which has an impact on child prostitution in the country, Tourist agencies add.
They say that these children are ‘hired’ at a price and the ‘agents’ who are go-betweens of the parents and the foreigners, make huge profits.
Beggary can be practically eliminated or at least controlled to a great extent if there is will and determination to do so. The Government must stop the farce and act to bring about real change on ground. The important steps in these would be creating awareness among the public, building the necessary infrastructure, and by appreciating the links between poverty, unemployment, disabilities, destitution and beggary, and devising suitable solutions.
Distinguish destitution from professional beggary
The present system makes no effort to distinguish destitution from beggary. Quite a few of the beggars are old aged and physically disabled.
Treating all beggars as criminals does not help. Only the lazy and the professional may be subjected to Correctional sentences.
We should have full sympathy with people hit by bad circumstances but zero tolerance to professional money-makers through begging.
The public and government have to think very seriously about methods of providing relief to the abandoned (supportless) old aged citizens, presently without any social security. The approach of the system should be supportive and corrective. It should be sympathetic to the whole issue of destitution and must alleviate the condition of citizens slipped into destitution.
Raise/Widen the security net
There should be a social safety net to provide relief and rehabilitation to sections of society or individuals struck by misfortunes in their lives, calamities, handicaps, disabilities or familial, social or economic trauma.
The government along with the civil society has to take comprehensive steps to provide these strata the basic amenities and alternative life support systems so that they can also be discouraged from begging and thereby have their share in the development of the country.
Eliminate escape avenues
Offenders who have made begging a profession have to be punished by making them work. Simply putting them behind bars is not going to make an effect on them. Innovative ways like employing the inmates in maintenance of gardens, roads, and upkeep of civic amenities.
Steps must be taken to educate people not to help beggars in the wrong direction by giving them alms. The authorities should organise sensitising programmes for the citizens, police, and in schools and issue messages through Hoardings, Newspapers, Internet, and other mass media.
Most of us would not like to accept it, but the cause for the pathetic situation of beggary lies on us. We, as citizens, have failed in three ways : 1., in not holding the administration accountable for so long a period; 2., in encouraging beggary by providing alms even while a relief system is in force. 3., by failing to debate and push establishment of a broader destitute relief and rehabilitation system and Social Security mechanism.
It’s time we wake up from our slumber.
Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2010 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.