Apathetic society or a lucrative trade?

Begging is a topic that often crops up in everyday conversations and I think this is the first time I have seen it in the blogging world. Darwaish posted a story about begging, titled Living in an Indifferent Soceity, in which he states how heartless our society has become when it comes to these individuals. I beg to differ.

First, a little background. In virtually all areas of any large city in Pakistan, you’re likely to come across a stream of adult or child beggars. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some simply knock on car windows and ask for money. Some always carry goods to sell, but end up begging for a larger amount once they have your attention. Others try to gain sympathy after showing their festering wounds, burns or amputated limbs. Yet others use all the tricks in the book, everything from using religion as a tool to appealing to your moral values, just to get you to pony up your earnings.

When I first arrived here, these encounters would really touch my heart and I would try to help them whichever way I could, but it didn’t take long for me to lose faith in doing something that only benefits the begging mafia or the common trickster. I have come to realize that it is almost never a genuine case of need and desperation. The real needy couldn’t beg even if they overcame the initial shame, for the already established begging gangs wouldn’t allow it. Else, they themselves would be lured into the lucrative business of professional begging once their initial need was met.

Too many times, I have seen disabled children make a quick getaway when their perfectly healthy, hidden limbs are exposed. Too many times, I have actually talked to these adults and children and found their excuse for begging to be just another ploy to rob you of your hard-earned cash. I have also seen perfectly normal and well-off people in the disguise of a genuinely desperate and homeless beggar. There is a seemingly dumb woman that roams around Islamabad’s F7 area whose bandaged, amputated arm still carries fresh “blood”, just like it has for the last couple of years. You see the same group of people begging at the same point everyday.

I remember an incident from roughly 10 years ago while I was working day and night just to make enough to cover the travel expenses. I left the office around sunset and encountered an old woman in rags on the steps of the building. She asked for my help in counting and sorting whatever she had earned begging that day and to my disbelief, the day’s total came out to be quite a handsome figure for that time.

If these really were needy, homeless people, they wouldn’t suddenly disappear during the holidays. It is quite impossible to find the usual hordes after festivals such as Eid or national holidays. If I was unfortunate enough to be dependent on mere pittance, a few days off would definitely spell my end, but not for these people.

On the other hand, the real needy never pester you for money or play any tricks to get what they need. These are the people who sell newspapers to stopped cars wearing nothing but a single shirt in freezing weather. These are the people who refuse “pittance” and accept only what is due for their product or service. These are the people who slave away in the homes of the rich and wealthy and truly deserve the “charity” that is wasted elsewhere.

So are all beggars “fakes”? No, there are definitely a number of them, usually children, who have been kidnapped and had their limbs cut off or wounds inflicted. Quite a few are forced into this trade by the gangs running these rackets yet their ties with the authorities or the underworld prevent any large-scale action against them. According to an article I read sometime back, the government has made quite an effort at rehabilitating these people, only to have them escape back into the “easy” and high-paying profession of begging.

What can we, the supposed indifferent society, do to solve this problem? Especially the inhuman and totally unacceptable practice of amputating, burning or forcing people into a life of misery and bondage? Quite the opposite of throwing more money at those you pity. Why does this practise continue to flourish? It’s a simple matter of economics. As long as people continue to give, the gangs will have all the more reason to recruit and enslave more people to increase their profits. The freelance children will see it as a lucrative means of earning ready cash and it will become their lifelong career. It is only when this line of profession becomes unprofitable, combined with better law enforcement, that we can truly be rid of this evil.

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