By Dinithi Gunasekera
“Beggary is a great socioeconomic problem found in many of the underdeveloped countries of the world. It is a symptom of personal as well as social disorganisation. Beggary in a street at once remind us of an ill-organised society” (Rao, 2003)
Widespread vagrancy is one that can be seen in the suburbs of Colombo and beyond. From the regular hustle and bustle of Sri Lanka’s busy streets, this gradually increasing community of shabbily clad individuals that extend their hands in expectation of merciful donations seem to juxtapose the facade of the mini-metropolitan ideal that is Colombo.
According to recent media reports, Police Media Spokesman DIG (Deputy Inspector General) Ajith Rohana, in addition to stating that the Police has launched a special operation to apprehend people involved in begging as part of a business, further said that legal action would be taken against motorists under Article 59 of the National Thoroughfare Act for giving money to beggars at traffic lights. He added that nearly 95% of the beggars in the vicinity of Colombo are ingenuine and that “they hand over the collected money to another person who is in charge at the end of the day”. The action plan follows concerns on the transmission of Covid-19 from beggars.
Attempts to contact the DIG for a comprehensive comment unfortunately proved unsuccessful.
Sri Lanka has thus far followed a rather cold-blooded approach to the concern at hand. In 2017, then Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka’s proposal to prohibit begging within Colombo from 2018 onwards could be cited as one example.
DIG Rohana’s comments caused quite the stir, with people suggesting that the approach undertaken by the authorities is unempathetic in the midst of a pandemic, in which suffering is now the new routine, especially for those with the added burden of underprivileged socioeconomic circumstances.
“Authorities can’t expect to echo the phrase ‘strict measures will be taken’ to each and every social problem, especially within the present circumstances. These are words used when you don’t have perspective on the problems faced by society at large.
“One must not subscribe to such ideologies; rather, they must analyse the root causes as to why something is the way it is,” expressed University of Colombo (UoC) Faculty of Arts Department of Economics Dr. Priyanga Dunusinghe in an exchange with The Sunday Morning Brunch.
The beggar community: A spectrum
We see a vast variety of beggars; from the usual roadside beggar to the small merchant, handicapped beggar, or beggar families, to aggressive roadside beggars who tap on vehicle windows when parked in traffic.
There is also professionalism displayed by some, where they perform various tricks and talents in exchange for money in buses and other public spaces.
Across the world, begging in public is largely restricted. In larger cities in the US, panhandling – the practice of asking people for money on the streets – has been banned. In the UK, begging is illegal under the Vagrancy Act. In Japan, begging is illegal under Article 1, Section 22 of the Minor Offences Law.
Fake beggars vs. begging to survive
Echoing DIG Rohana’s sentiments, there is active talk of a thriving “beggar mafia” among the general public. The focus with comments about legal action was, in fact, targeting “fake beggars”. DIG Rohana elaborated to the media that intelligence units have found out that many of the so-called beggars are part of a business, whilst those begging for survival are actually very few in number.
“There is a regular I have seen in front of Majestic City in Bambalapitiya who is familiar to my mother. He is a ‘cripple’ who owns five buses and earns a monthly income more than I, as a web journalist, earn,” shared a member of the public, who wished to remain anonymous.
“There is one beggar near our school. He always wants Nescafé from the nearby Perera & Sons and asks for money for his child. One day, I saw him shopping at Colombo City Centre,” said a senior prefect at a leading school in Colombo.
Another concerned citizen shared their experience, stating: “There was a man in Manning Town who used to be seen with a bag of dhal, rice, and other grains. We spotted him with his bag broken and all the grains scattered on the floor, and he was weeping. Anyone would feel sympathetic after seeing something like that, so my mother asked him what had happened. He told her he had epilepsy and that the grains had been soiled as a result of an epileptic fit he underwent. My mother went with him to the Manning Market and bought him some groceries. After two months, we saw the same man near the construction site opposite Devi Balika Vidyalaya. Apparently, this man is a famous scam artist.”
“I was near a bus stand. He (a beggar) showed me some reports and said that his child was a heart patient and needed help. Since I had studied bioscience, I went through the reports he flaunted out of curiosity. His face immediately changed when he saw I had realised that the reports were merely blood sample reports and the only defect was an acute bacterial infection. They were not his,” shared Kaushala Perera, a prospective medical student.
“There was a woman in front of the Piliyandala Keells and she told us that she had nothing to eat. I ignored her as she seemed very suspicious but I kept observing her. Later, she went to a corner, pulled out an iPhone from her bag and called someone. Within minutes, a Range Rover pulled up. She got in and even rode shotgun,” shared another.
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to the Founder of Shelter4Homeless, a charitable organisation committed to the welfare of the homeless elderly in Sri Lanka, Sanath Munasinghe, who related an incident in which one of the elders at the shelter was discharged whilst receiving medical treatment, by an unknown and identified person.
“We got the Police and the Special Task Force involved but the person could not be traced. He had left his signature on the hospital entries and taken away the disabled elder for good. We suspect that this is a doing of ‘the beggar mafia’.”
Beggars are being commodified
According to Dr. Dunusinghe, the mafia situation has come into being due to beggars being commodified. He explained how in a capitalistic economy, if there is a market for a certain good or a service – even human beings – they are identified as commodities.
“What is the ‘beggar market’? Some people are ready to pay for the grievances of the beggars. In this situation, the amount you are willing to offer the beggar would be equivalent to the amount you would be paying for a product. People derive satisfaction by this act which is called utility in economics,” he explained.
“If you meticulously set up a demand curve for this scenario on the basis of the ‘willingness to pay’ approach, you can construct a demand curve for beggars. Knowing this fact, there are people who are ready to be suppliers of this ‘service’ that derives the donors’ utility through a generous supply of beggars.
“How they are recruited is by thuggery or a promise of money in return. These ‘products’ are sold at different markets, namely Majestic City, Fort Railway Station, Victoria Park, and so on. Just like guava and mango are sold at ideal spots, these beggars are placed at ideal locations in which the highest revenue can be generated. Examples for best markets are temples on Poya days, especially within the interval after a bana and pirith service. It is exploitation.”
Dr. Dunusinghe brought forth the critical aspect of the mafia by uncovering that its existence is due to the demand that calls for it.
Poverty, being a factor experienced by many developing nations, acts as a notable factor within this discussion. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), 4.1% of Sri Lanka’s population lives below the national poverty line as of 2016. Data from the Department of Census and Statistics calculates the country’s poverty headcount to be at an estimated 4.6.
Noting that Sri Lanka’s poverty calculations are outdated, Dr. Dunusinghe said that although poverty may very well be one of the driving factors, most people fall into poverty due to the risks faced, that were systematically unsupported. Poverty is largely an outcome among beggars but it is not fundamentally the main reason for begging.
Noting that a large number of beggars are poverty stricken, we have to address why these people have low or no income at all.
A similar analysis was seen in a research paper by Dr. Seeni Mohamed Ayoob (2018), which consisted of a study among 185 beggars who have engaged in begging from December 2018 to November 2019. It denotes that 16% of people beg due to elderly and sickly status and 12% due to structural poverty, while 7% begged for medical reasons.
Anthropologist Dr. Tharindi Udalagama of the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, UoC stressed: “Beggars are a largely neglected and marginalised population in the country,” adding: “Talk of the mafia should not overshadow this fact.” She also referred to beggars in areas like Kudaligama who share gypsy roots.
Dr. Dunusinghe seconded this notion. “They are simply those who failed to secure some sort of livelihood. A beggar is simply a harbinger of the message that society has failed. This could happen to me or you at any point.”
Dr. Dunusinghe insisted that the beggar issue cannot be answered by imposing stringent laws and punishments. His suggestion was a well-designed social protection system.
“There is the lack of a well-designed social protection system to support people during different vulnerable stages in life; as toddlers, dependent school-going children, youths, pregnant mothers, working-age individuals, and the elderly. During those stages, you face different risks, which, if not mitigated, will result in dire consequences,” explained Dr. Dunusinghe.
As a child, if proper nutrition is not received, he will not be able to educate himself to accordingly contribute to the workforce. If one is handicapped and the health issue is not addressed, that person will be both physically and mentally handicapped and unable to contribute.
“In the developed world, struggling individuals have the coverage of a social protection system and access to certain subsidies. As a country, when we fail to have a system in place, what happens is whenever individuals face risks with respect to either loss of employment, income, or habitat, there is no alternative support system from the society. This is in essence, a failure with regard to social protection. This is the reason for the increase in the beggar population in not only Colombo but other major cities as well,” elaborated Dr. Dunusinghe.
His recommendation of an equipped social support system is a long-term holistic approach that seeks far-sighted results. The ultimate objective of development is to enable people to conduct themselves with dignity, whereas begging is quite the opposite.
More awareness and education is essential from the public, as was clear through the interviews thus far conducted by The Sunday Morning Brunch.
Shelter4Homeless Founder Sanath Munasinghe, through his experience, expressed that there is a sizable difference between vagrancy and homelessness: Vagrants are rarely homeless, he opined.
Additionally, more independent organisations that attempt to bridge the gaps as a result of the failings of the state system require more widespread publicity and support.