The Sunday Leader

Beggars Making A Buck

By Ashanthi Warunasuriya

The problem of beggars has always been the most discussed topic in the society. In Sri Lanka, over the past few years, there was an increase of beggars. Although the numbers had gone down for some time, once again beggars have started to appear in large numbers, especially in urban areas and roads with traffic lights.

The main problem people face with regards to these beggars is the difficulty in distinguishing the genuine, helpless souls from imposters. The main reason for it is the Mafia that is going on in misusing beggars as a means of income. Since begging has become a lucrative business, there are several businessmen in the country who have deployed hundreds of beggars to ‘beg’ for them. Amazingly, even the beggars themselves have become rich by engaging in this vocation.

At present there are many beggars on the street who quickly attract the sympathy of passers-by. Beggars can be seen without any age difference. Sometimes there are whole families who are begging on streets displaying their infants to gain sympathy. While some of these beggars are genuinely helpless, there are some who earn well by properly marketing their ‘plight’. In every religious occasion we see heaps of beggars stationed in front of religious places, seeking alms from the devotees. This time we hear our story from Anuradhapura.

The Poson Poya day is considered as an important religious event in Sri Lanka. Most devotees visit the shrines in Anuradhapura in this season. Similarly, few days before the Poya day, there are many beggars travelling to Anuradhapura for ‘business’ purposes. There is a huge competition among them to grab a good spot to beg. There are beggars coming to Anuradhapura from all parts of the country these days. The best travelling method they use is the train. Hence the trains are packed with beggars these days.

However, due to this growing menace, the administrative authorities of several religious places have decided to make those places off limits to beggars. At present several religious places including the Kelani Viharaya have banned beggars from begging inside the premises. This decision has been made with the approval of religious leaders. Since the devotees who come to seek spiritual comfort are being constantly harassed by these beggars, tougher measures have been taken to ensure the safety and tranquillity of these religious places.

During the Poson season that comes right after the Wesak season, beggars can be seen even in remote religious places such as Mihintale and Thanthirimale. A resident in the area said that he had seen around 200 new beggars who had arrived there just for the season. According to him this is an annual business.

According to residents in the area, most of these beggars are being deployed by organized gangs who bring these beggars from vans and buses every morning, to station them at key hunting grounds. And three times a day the managers visit these beggars, hand them the daily share and take away the loot. The begging mafia is not a new thing to this country. But the problem is the bad picture it has drawn on all the beggars, denying the genuine helpless souls any hope of solace from the society. Because of these commercial beggars all those who beg have been capitalized as crooks.

In a recent investigation carried out by The Sunday Leader on the streets of Colombo, it was discovered that there are many beggars who have been living and begging in the same spot for ages. Their whole lives have been spent in the gutters. While many of them are spending their ‘alms’ on narcotics and other forms of entertainment, there are some who genuinely provide for their families from this income. Some of them had been living lavish lives but have fallen in to the streets by misfortune. There were others who had been thrown out of their houses by their children after becoming old. Among these unfortunate souls, there were some who were begging by using their infants as bait.

There are many tales that we heard from these beggars as to why they had fallen into this abyss. Some said that they had seen no other alternative than begging. Others said that they have been tempted by the large amount of money that can be earned from begging. There are some people who perform skills in front of the public and make a living. However, despite their ways of begging, these beggars earn an average income of around Rs. 3,000 per day. Although the sum varies on the month, on special occasions such as religious festivals, they are able to hit the jackpot. There are those who score Rs. 10,000 on such days. Apart from cash, sometimes these beggars also receive goods, which they later convert into money.

The overlords who deploy these beggars have tough employment conditions on their employees. Some masters claim all the money from the beggars and provide them with a monthly salary, while others are giving the beggars a commission of the collection. There are a large number of other jobs such as drivers, collectors and gangsters that have been created around this begging industry.

There are some beggars in Colombo who own shops and other properties in other areas of the country. All these fortunes have been earned by them from the money they get from begging.

However, these things cannot be prevented by the society despite whatever action is taken by the authorities. Although the situation can be controlled through tougher regulations, the begging industry is going to continue. But the government can take steps to take out this begging mafias that is robbing the ordinary citizens.

During the Poson season around 3,000 police officers and members of the CID had been deployed in Anuradhapura area to ensure safety of the pilgrims. There were also additional buses and trains deployed to provide transport facilities. Due to the effort of the government the problems caused by beggars were not so serious compared to previous years.

Many researches that have been conducted on beggars in Sri Lanka have pointed out that most of these beggars are not disabled, but are able bodied personnel. Most of them are able to earn money by doing some work. But still they are engaged in begging because of the easy money that comes from it. Sometimes these beggars could become a serious nuisance to foreign tourists. There are beggars who crowd around a foreigner as soon as they spot one.In 2010 the then government introduced a rehabilitation program for Colombo street beggars. But it too has failed to provide a permanent solution for this problem. Still there are thousands of beggars who do not even possess a valid ID card. Some of them are really living a life of misery. There are some who do not even have a place to live. It is up to the government to identify these genuine beggars and help them with the assistance of foreign organizations.

In 2014 there were special raids carried out by the police to catch those pretending to be beggars in Colombo. By doing so the police was also able to uncover a narcotic racket that had been carried out by using these beggars. Expressing his views on the matter, the then media spokesman of the police, Ajith Rohana said that these beggars had been used for numerous illegal and criminal activities.

According to the researches carried out by Prof. Nandasena Rathnapala on beggars in Sri Lanka, from 1970 there have been around 55,000 beggars in this country. According to Prof. Mayura Samarakoon of J’pura University, issues such as illnesses and old age have increased the number of beggars on the streets. He too proposes rehabilitation as a means of reducing these numbers.

However, selling sympathy has become the latest trend for these beggars. And the public must always be aware of these crooks. But filtering good from bad is as difficult as keeping bad away from the streets itself.


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