The Sunday Leader

The Forgotten Lankans

By Dinouk Colombage

Beggars line the streets of Colombo, each with his or her own story

Walking aimlessly along the streets, stopping at each car with an outstretched hand and a look of utter despair; the streets of Colombo are home to hundreds of beggars. Every day there is a new one on the street, in a new shape or size, with a new disability but all with nowhere to go. Where did they come from and how do they drag themselves through the unrelenting world?
Each beggar of Colombo has a story to tell, a story of how they have come to living on the street and a story of what lengths they would go to survive. Below is a story of three beggars from three different areas of Colombo, their location is different but their lives are the same.
On Pepiliyana Road in Nugegoda, every morning as the traffic builds up, a collection of elderly people converge on the vehicles. While decently stressed many of them look unwashed and frail. The men are bent and bone thin, while the women have a look of confusion on their faces. They spend their morning walking from vehicle to vehicle, smiling at the inhabitants while asking for some money. Most of the time they are turned away, but on the occasion that money is handed over it is quickly deposited in to their bag.
Somathee, the name by which she introduced herself, has been on the streets for almost 35 years. Aged 62 she explains how she used to be a garment worker, before being forced to quit her job and run away. While relating her story, she had a smile on her face all the while an outstretched hand indicating that continual payment was needed to ensure the story continued.
She explained that when she moved to the city back in 1975 she did so with no education and barely any money. She suddenly seemed aware of her surroundings and looked energized as she regaled her life-story. She was picked up by a factory owner who gave her a job in a small garment centre. Her job, she explained, was to sit there and sew buttons on to shirts. “It was never an exciting job, but I had a room and two meals a day. It was better than what I received at home,” she said.
After a year Somathee said she met and fell in love with a driver from the factory, “it seemed much better. But he got me pregnant and the factory owners asked me to leave. The man refused to even see me. Luckily one of the other women knew where I could have an abortion done in Fort, she took me there”.
With very little money and no job, Somathee was forced on to the street. “I could not return home as I had run away. I instead lived near a shop in Fort doing whatever manual labour they needed me for. The shop-owner was nice and gave me one meal a day. But he could never give me a roof to sleep under,” she said.
Somathee explained since the age of 28 she has been forced to earn any little scrap she could in any way she could. She described how during the 1983 riots she witnessed mobs vandalising stores in Kotahena, “I took part myself because they offered me money and food. I did not know why we were doing this but I did not care”.
Three years ago Somathee was found by social workers who placed her in a home for the aged situated in Rajagiriya. “One day some people came and took me away. They left me in a building that was inhabited by other people like me. I was cleaned and given food. However, we were told to not go outside again,” she said. Somathee added that although she was given daily meals, she did not like being forced to stay in the home, finally last year she and several others left early morning. “We took the little belongings we had and left. I spent most of my life on the street and I do not need these people now,” she stated.
She explained that she and the others from the home are now back on the streets, “we live nearby and spend our days begging for money. We often earn enough to buy some food, this is my home now and I am happy here”.
Out on Baseline Road in Narahenpita, a man spends his day near the traffic light begging for money. Like clockwork he is there between the hours of 6 am and 7 pm, in the nights he wanders away to a nearby slum where he scavengers for shelter for the night.
He is poorly dressed, with sores all over and unwashed, speaking at times incoherently he refuses to give his name saying that he would be arrested. “I survive on this road, but the police are now looking for me because they fear me,” he said.
After much coaxing and ‘encouragement’, he reveals himself as Sarath and claims he is a relation of the Presidential family. With his continual reminder that he is a relative of the President, Sarath said that he had lived on the streets for 15 years. Sarath explained that when he was 30 he lost his job as a cleaner with the Colombo Municipal Council. “They told me that I could not work for them anymore. They did not even give me my money”. He added that at the time he was “renting” a room in shanty town near Kelaniya, “I could not afford the rent and was forced to leave. When I asked the man to allow me stay until I found a new job he and several others beat me and stole my clothes,” he said.
He said that no other room was available to him in the shanty and he was forced to leave the area. “I lived on the street outside of the shanty town, but the police came and chased me away,” Sarath said.
Sarath spent several years living on Galle Road, moving every day for fear of being arrested or worse. “With nobody giving me work I used to take the light bulbs outside people’s shops and houses and sold them to the garbage collectors. Many of them were my friends so they gave me a very good price,” he said.
He went on to say that one night the police caught him and took him to the police station, “I was put in a cell and was immediately assaulted by the people there. The police did nothing to help, they threw me out two weeks later saying that nobody cared if I lived or died”.
Sarath, who sustained injuries during his time in prison, went to a man he described as a “doctor” living by the railway line on Castle Street. “The man injected me with some medicine and I got better very soon, but, he told me that I need to return every two days for medicine. I am now out on the street begging for money so I can pay for this medicine,” he said.
By Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo, there is a disabled man who is forced to sit on the side of the road. Spread out beside him is a rag that he describes as his bed and other possessions including a plastic bag which he does not let out of his sight.
Known only as “Parra Sirisena”, he states that he was forced to live on the street after suffering an injury in a factory. “I injured my legs badly while working in a tea factory, the doctors were forced to amputate them and now I cannot work,” he stated.
Sirisena added that while working in the factory he was given accommodation and food, now he has no money to afford residence of his own and has been forced to live on the street. “I am helped every morning to this spot, where passing cars hand out money. In the evening a friend will bring a wheelchair and take me to the park where I sleep. Whatever money I have is spent on food, it does not bring me much,” he said. Sirisena refused to say much more claiming that “people like to hear my story but nobody helps”.
Regardless of their situations each of these beggars, and hundreds of others, continue every day to roam the streets of Colombo in search of food, shelter or money. All three of which are often scarce for them.

8 Comments for “The Forgotten Lankans”

  1. peace lover

    I feel very sorry for the pathetic situation of these people from downtrodden masses.Some religious organisations or social services must help them to uplift their life.All are equal in the eyes of god and let us take a bold decision to help them.

  2. human

    It is good to see atleast some journalist cared to present the plight of the unfortunate people who are forced by circumstances to beg.

    Hope some Mahanayake will read this article and at least have a pirth ceremony
    to bring them relief from above.

  3. gamarala

    Destitute persons soliciting for alms is common in third world countries. For us, it is a national shame and shows the disregard the governments had for them.
    In western & developed countries, ‘soliciting’ is a crime.
    In europe and in north america, at the end of WW II, legislation was enacted to reduce destitution. In UK, the National Assistance Act formulated by Lord Beveridge ensured that “no man is destitute”.
    All citizens, rich or poor had to contribute a small amount weekly and this added up to billions from which flowed all social services. It was a massive undertaking modified many times over the decades, and now able to even take care of immigrants – but all had to pay back some time during their lifetime.
    But we are busy with “politics” & “religion”.
    When will we get ” far sighted “‘ leaders?
    Is not this human suffering against the lofty ideals of “religion”?

  4. raj

    if these poor citizens are left without any help, then what is the menaing of preaching religion. It does not make any sense while ignoring these poor citizens, preaching religion.

  5. Hansan

    Lots of Bana ,every time you put the Radio on, Lots of Preaching by all other Religions, But little is done. You ask any person paying big Hotel Bills, He is a very strong Religious man in the socity, But he don’t see the begger on the road .Has the President called these people for a Meal?

  6. West is best

    What a joke all this development rubbish when there are beggars in every corner and more than 80% of the population are living under the poverty line.

  7. Kira

    Another day in paradise

  8. Fern

    Hopefully the new generations will work together to improve this class or category of soldiers in Lanka.

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