In Karachi, beggars help muggers and the police can’t follow the law
I saw him 20 years ago, perched on a stool outside the Sulemania Mosque in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. He had no arms and no legs, and was fair complexioned like most of the western tourists that throng Istanbul. I will never forget the huge smile he gave me when I dropped a coin in the box held by a little boy standing next to the stool. Behind him on the wall, hung the license issued by the government allowing him to make a living through begging. Perhaps such licenses are issued to beggars and those who beg without a license are put behind bars.
Compare this with the beggars in our cities, particularly Karachi. The distance from my house to my office is eight kilometres, and I see about 20 beggars on my way to the office every morning. Most of them are perfectly healthy and even run to your car when it approaches the traffic signal. In the parking lot outside my office building, there are men, women and children who surround my car and I can’t get out of it without bumping into one of them.
Two weeks back, women and child beggars in the parking area surrounded a motorist, and while he was trying to get away from them, a couple of motorcyclists came, pointed a gun at him and took away whatever he had in his wallet and his cell phone. It was obvious that the beggars had helped the motorcyclists in carrying out the robbery. Eventually, the shopkeepers called the cops and had the beggars shifted somewhere else. But I have no doubt they’ll be back in a few days, using the parking lot as a huge toilet, and doing what most Pakistanis are very good at – increasing the population exponentially. And when their children grow up, they too will become beggars, adding to the misery of the unlucky people who live in this mega city.
To give you some idea of how much these beggars earn, let me relate an incident which took place 40 years ago. There was a near-blind beggar near Rimpa Plaza who would be picked up from his home every morning and then taken back at night by a rickshaw driver. Someone told my father that he belonged to our community and was from our hometown in India. Our community elders immediately decided to help him. They arranged to pay him Rs500 every month (that would be equivalent to 20, 000 in today’s money). When their representative went to the beggar’s house, he was amazed to see it well-furnished. Apparently, this beggar was a very rich man. He laughed when he heard of the offer.
“You can keep your money”, he said. “I earn more than 10 times that much!”
Every year, and particularly during the holy month of Ramazan, beggars from all over the country swarm into the cities and make life miserable for us. You can’t go anywhere without running into them. At every traffic signal, they persistently tap on your car windows and demand payment, as if they are doing us a favour by asking for money. Then there are the eunuchs, whom our illiterate folk regard as the chosen few who will have your prayers answered. They don’t have the sense to realise that if eunuchs had the power to persuade the Almighty to do anything, why would they themselves remain poor? But no, our gullible folk have been told repeatedly to give alms to beggars and eunuchs otherwise their prayers won’t come true. Hence, they continue doling out their hard-earned money, which would be better spent on if donated to charitable organisations like the Edhi trust or SIUT.
A beggar in the parking lot near my office once told me,
“Sir, I don’t want your money. Just buy this medicine for my ailing son on your way home.”
He handed me the prescription, which entailed a very expensive course of injections. I decided to help him out and went to the nearest medical store. When I gave the prescription to the pharmacist, he said,
“The beggar will sell this to another pharmacy for half its cost.”
Upon examining the prescription closely, I realised that it was clearly forged since the doctor’s name was not decipherable and there was no phone number on it either. The next day I went back and returned the prescription to the beggar.
A child beggar once approached me in Clifton and whispered,
“Sir, don’t give me any money, it’ll be taken away by the man who is standing on the footpath. Just buy me a bun kebab, I’m really hungry.”
This is what happens all over the country every day. Child beggars have to give everything they earn to the beggar mafia who kidnap them and force them to beg.
Then there are the child beggars who insist on cleaning your car windshield. You plea and scold them to stay away from your car but to no avail. They take their own sweet time wiping the windshield even when the signal has turned green and the cars behind you are aggressively blasting their horns at you.
There is no solid data regarding the number of beggars present the city. However, I did come across an article according to which there are 25 million beggars in the country. Since one in 10 Pakistanis resides in Karachi, we can assume that there are two and a half million beggars making their living in the metropolitan. They can be seen outside shopping malls, near mosques and shrines and on all the roads and footpaths.
As per Section 7(1) of the Vagrancy Act 1958,
“Any police officer may without an order from a magistrate and without a warrant, arrest and search any person who appears to him to be a vagrant…”
Section 49 of the Sindh Child Act 1955 also prohibits children from begging, and makes it a punishable act. Beggars and those who force children to beg can face jail time for up to three years.
“Whoever employs any child for the purposes of begging or causes any child to beg of whoever having the custody, charge of care of a child connives at or encourages its employment for the purpose of begging and whoever uses a child as an exhibit for the purpose of begging shall on conviction be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend.”
I remember a time when the police would round up all the beggars in the city and take them away. But now, the same law is no longer enforced, probably because beggars or the mafia pay the cops to look the other way. So it looks like we’ll have to suffer the agony of being harassed by beggars for a very long time.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.