Begging may have little to do with poverty and more with how a state manages its funds and cares for its people. Can a nation, itself constantly seeking loans and grants, be really concerned for its street beggars? The fact that the country is under a foreign debt of $115.7 billion speaks a lot about our acceptance of begging as a way of life. That we take no measures to limit our burgeoning population or to ensure old-age benefits or social security for all citizens, further adds to the phenomenon.
While the pricking levers of our collective conscience remain unresponsive to foreign begging, they are quick to respond when it comes to our local streets. Perhaps a close proximity to maimed adults, unkempt children and drugged infants unleashes a mixture of adrenaline, guilt, pity, piety, charity and anger. Included in this painful practice are an estimated 1.5 million children who live and beg on the streets, becoming vulnerable to sexual abuse, crime and drugs.
Pakistan has an anti-vagrancy act since 1958, that prohibits soliciting for alms in a public place or exhibiting any wounds or deformity for the purpose of soliciting alms. This law largely remained ineffective because of the disinterest of state machinery and the absence of supporting shelters and processes. Thus, rather than rushing into new laws, we need to review this subject and consider humane ways to rehabilitate the beggars and apprehend their handlers.
Any anti-beggary drive must begin only once the following mechanisms have been put in place: (a) that the police is bound to remove every individual found begging regardless of age, gender or disability; (b) that such individuals be taken to the police station (for a few hours) for gathering information about handlers, fact finding, records and biometrics; (c) children below 18 are taken to the child rehabilitation and adults to the adult rehabilitation centres where they are placed initially for a period of three months; (d) police simultaneously begins apprehending handlers and initiates criminal proceedings against them; (e) after three months, children may be returned to parents and adults released, with written assurances for not returning to streets.
A beggary elimination programme cannot be effective without trained staff and sufficient rehabilitation centres for adults and children in each province. The state must provide food, shelter, clothes, healthcare, education, counselling and skill development in these centres. The centres must aim to reform its residents, while the police must focus on eliminating ‘behind-the-scene’ gangs, peddlers and handlers. The three-month initial stay may be extended if the person would be unsafe outside the shelter or may resume begging after release. Needless to say that the Social Welfare Department must remain an active partner throughout this programme.
Begging is a result of neglect — both by the state and society. It will continue as long as only three million people file their tax returns, only 10% workers are registered with the EOBI and only 5% are included in the Social Security programmes. This will also continue to happen if we define the monthly minimum wage at a measly level of Rs17,500 and refuse to pay even that to most workers. The state and the citizens can join hands in remedying these faults and developing effective and humane processes to manage beggary.