Beg your pardon, Mr Minister?
Posted on January 10th, 2019

Laksiri Warnakula

The other day a minister was heard saying ‘Begging is going to be made illegal’!

I beg leave to add a few comments on the above. Let’s begin by defining ‘begging’ and I chose the Oxford Dictionaries for the purpose. Now even though there are quite a few different usages of the word including a couple of idioms, the one, which is relevant to the context here says ‘to ask somebody for money, food etc., especially in the street’. And as an example sentence, it offers; ‘London is full of homeless people begging in the streets.’ A sentence that provides some food for thought too, and showing I hope, the commonness, the ubiquity and the universality of the phenomenon, irrespective of whether it’s the first, the second or the third world.

Now the ministerial intention may be good, which is somewhat a rarity these days. However it begs the question! Is he trying to act like the majority of his predecessors and even contemporaries preferring to display showmanship to stewardship? Is he going for the same strategy of, trying to paint the tombstone white, while forgetting what it hides? Or is he hoping to portray a picture of a well-to-do Sri Lanka to the visitors by presenting them with a beautiful facade masking the reality of poverty in the country?

We all know very well why our people are driven to begging. There is no social welfare system provided for the handicapped, the needy and the old. Unless one is fortunate to have savings to fall on after retirement or becoming disabled, they all become dependents of their offspring, inmates of orphanages and homes for the aged. And for the unfortunate remainder, who can’t have any of the above, the hope lies in the hands of the compassionate public or becoming beggars, in other words.

Same is true for whole families with unemployed or disabled parents with small children. In fact their circumstances may be much worse than that of the solo beggar. And needless to say all these people can become easy prey for all those unscrupulous scum, who are looking for easy money.And it is also quite reasonable to assume that there is a beggar-mafia out there too feasting on the hapless and the helpless.

I have also heard some people say that begging now has become a lucrative profession, where you can earn a healthy income, by doing nothing but begging. There could be individuals, who do this, but their number cannot be big and I do not think that they represent the genuinely poverty-stricken people in our society, who are driven to begging with no other choice.

In some countries there exist acts/laws making begging illegal, ‘Vagrancy Act’ in some Australian and UK states and councils, technically still in force, for example. However these countries have many social welfare programs and payment schemes and even charities that help the needy. Consequently it is often an individual’s own irresponsible behaviour and acts themselves that drive him/her to vagrancy and begging, which the authorities then may deem as illegal. But that’s Australia and UK and not Sri Lanka, where we have no government-run social welfare system for those, who are genuinely eligible for benefits and financial support from the government, except the pension, which only the retired public sector employees receive and the meagre ‘Samurdhi poverty alleviation allowance’, which is also mismanaged as usual.

Our people are driven to begging due to various socio-economic issues that are beyond their control. And then what the Hon. Minister is planning to do with the ones, who are caught’? Fine them or send them to jail? Following a few-months jail term at tax payer’s expense, they will be back at begging once again, perhaps now at another location.

It is generally true that begging in public, around places of religious worship and tourist attractions can become a nuisance to the general public as well as to the visitors. However, there is a plethora of issues that needs to be addressed and solved before such drastic measures are taken.

And this whole issue reminds me of another; liquor ban on women that was imposed one year ago. I am not sure whether any study has been done so far or if there is one on-going to see whether anything good, bad or nothing at all has happened to the society because of that decision. I personally do not think that anything has been or being done of that nature, going by the typical Sri Lankan governmental and political decision making, taking and subsequent actioning methodology; decisions taken with sheer short-sightedness based on inadequate (or bogus) feasibility studies and surveys, then hurriedly carried on to its implementation often accompanied by great fanfare and self-advertising. And then the whole thing is conveniently forgotten, particularly if it fails to live up to its expectations or deliver the goods as loudly promised.

I hope that a proper analysis and a survey will be undertaken covering relevant socio-economic aspects and factors before it is implemented.

Laksiri Warnakula

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