Begging: a job option for the poor
Once again, the ICT administration is conducting yet another campaign against beggars, whose presence is a constant reminder of the growing divide between the rich and the poor.
Previous attempts by image conscious city officials to clean up Islamabad of beggars by conducting "sweeps" and locking them up had proved ineffective in permanently reducing the beggar population.
This time, the ICT administration is said to have directed the police to round up the beggars and put them into a new institute called the Darul Shafqat, which is being established with the support of Edhi Trust. Beggars brought here will be provided with food, clothes, medical facilities and other necessities.
In addition to the Darul Shafqat, the ICT administration, in cooperation with at least two other NGOs, will also be establishing a rehabilitation centre for beggars where the latter will not only be provided food and clothing but also education and training for suitable jobs.
Rounding up beggars into rehabilitation centres is easy. Much more difficult is making them stay there and learn to turn over a new leaf. Whether rehabilitation centres per se can eventually help to reduce the number of beggars in Islamabad, increasingly seen milling around traffic junctions and the car parks of major markets, is therefore a big question.
After all, the poor can make a very good living begging, more so in this society where charity is a religious duty. Why would they want to do anything else, which would require more effort and hard work, and get less remuneration too?
Begging has been on the rise in recent years, not only in major Pakistani cities but elsewhere in the world too, including the US and China. City administrations in many countries, including Pakistan, have had to deal with the question of how to clear increasing numbers of beggars from their streets.
The general response has been a growing trend in anti- begging regulations, with many cities trying to enact new ordinances or amend existing ones to restrict begging, despite resistance by civil society groups calling for more compassion rather than intolerance for beggars.
Some cities in the US, such as Atlanta, have outlawed "aggressive" begging, while others like Boston have banned begging in certain places by setting up no begging zones. Other cities like Austin, forbid begging anywhere in public.
In China in recent months, many cities have begun considering approving regulations against begging. According to reports, Guangzhou city has instituted a ban that prohibits begging in places like government buildings, subways and parks.
The Chinese capital, Beijing, recently mulled over but eventually decided against setting up no-go areas for beggars at major tourist attractions and around hospitals and military districts.
New Delhi introduced a revolutionary anti-begging measure in 2002: penalizing by fines those people in cars and motorcycles who give alms or buy anything from children at traffic junctions!
Apart from Islamabad, other Pakistani cities like Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore have also been trying to get rid of beggars, whose presence not only spoils the image of the city and provincial governments but is said to pose a security risk as well.
The government of NWFP has vowed to eliminate begging in the province, and in Peshawar, a rehabilitation centre for men beggars (Darul Kafala), and a crisis centre for women and children beggars, are being established.
Karachi's city government has also vowed to banish beggars and the begging mafia from the city, terming giving alms to professional beggars as a sin. Lahore meanwhile has launched an ambitious plan to rehabilitate some 5,000 child beggars, including the passage of a Child Protection and Welfare Bureau bill that carries a maximum of five years' jail for those who exploit children for begging and other purposes.
Why begging is such a fast growing and attractive profession among the poor is pretty obvious. A child beggar in Karachi was reported to be earning Rs400 a day or roughly Rs12,000 a month, much more than the salary of a peon, driver or "khansama".
In America, a drug addict who "worked" as a beggar for five years earned $250 to $300 a week, while the minimum wage for a 40-hour week was $206. Besides, beggars' earnings are tax-free!
Beggars in developed cities usually tend to be marginalized individuals (e.g., drug addicts, people who have left the army or prison, and people escaping from physical or mental violence at home).
But in the cities of South Asia, Africa and to a lesser extent in China, organized beggar rings are common, including many that exploit children since the latter tend to extract more sympathy, and hence, money, from people.
In such cities, where large armies of street beggars are common, begging is a recognized and competitive urban-based profession for the urban poor, who are mostly migrants from the rural areas.
It is essentially the absence or the lack of state intervention in the beggars' world in these cities that has resulted in begging rackets and politics. Here beggars, who are usually found among family members of peddlers, hawkers, unskilled workers, rickshaw pullers and other low-income occupations, organize and govern themselves to achieve some degree of control over competition.
Elimination of beggars from cities would require more than just the establishment of rehabilitation centres. It requires a comprehensive mix of deterrent measures against begging rackets, the provision of adequate services like food, shelter and training to support those who choose to beg as a profession, and also resettlement and tenancy support services to help ensure beggars are able to make the huge leap successfully from living on the streets to a more settled and responsible lifestyle. To permanently eradicate begging, the government would also need to address the wider issues of rural poverty, unemployment and access to services.
Meanwhile, as long as those rounded up into rehabilitation centres in Islamabad and other cities continue to consider begging a legitimate job and a lucrative way to supplement family income, they will sooner or later wind up back on the streets, begging.
Worshipped, reviled or irrelevant?
Mahatma Gandhi's 135th birthday on Oct 2 was celebrated as usual by observing it as a national holiday. All major leaders in the right pecking order paid floral tributes at his shrine on the banks of the River Yamuna in Old Delhi.
In a popular sense though there was little new, in fact some more controversies and some new doubts have been raised over the Mahatma's stature as a moral man and as a mass leader who virtually single-handedly won freedom for India from Britain.
'Mira and the Mahatma', by Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, explores what seems to have been a close but platonic relationship between Gandhi and Madeleine Slate, daughter of a British admiral, who left Britain in 1925 at the age of 33 and travelled to India to be with Gandhi, then 56.
The book describes the relationship as a 'violent and passionate disturbance' in the life of a man, who had opted for celibacy and was busy seeking to wrest India's freedom from British rule.
On the other hand, a recent BBC report that seems to have gone surprisingly unnoticed has put a big question mark on Gandhi's celebrated philosophy of non-violence as having contributed as much to the British decision to vacate India in 1947 as it is widely credited to have done.
According to Mike Thomson, who did the research for the Document programme of BBC News, in the closing stages of World War II, as Allied and French resistance forces were driving Hitler's forces from France, three senior German officers defected.
The information they gave British intelligence was considered so sensitive that in 1945 it was locked away, not due to be released until the year 2021. Now, 17 years early, the BBC has been given special access to this secret file.
What it revealed was that the British had become wary and mistrusting of their once globally flaunted Indian army, mostly due to the efforts of the left-wing Indian revolutionary leader, Subhash Chandra Bose, who injected nationalist fervour in their ranks.
The story the German officers gave the British sleuths began in Berlin on April 3, 1941. This was the date when Subhash Chandra Bose arrived in the German capital. Arrested 11 times by the British in India, Bose had fled with one mission in mind to seek Hitler's help in pushing the British out of India.
He wanted 500 volunteers who would be trained in Germany and then parachuted into India. Six months later, according to the BBC report, with the help of the German foreign ministry, Bose had set up what he called "The Free India Centre", from where he published leaflets, wrote speeches and organized broadcasts in support of his cause.
Towards the end of 1941, Hitler's regime officially recognized his provisional "Free India Government" in exile, and even agreed to help Bose raise an army to fight for his cause. It was to be called "The Free India Legion".
Bose hoped to raise a force of about 100,000 men which, when armed and kitted out by the Germans, could be used to invade British India. In all 3,000 Indian prisoners of war signed up for the Free India Legion. "But instead of being delighted, Bose was worried. A left-wing admirer of Russia, he was devastated when Hitler's tanks rolled across the Soviet border," says Thomson.
He also realized that after the trouncing in Stalingrad the now-retreating German army would be in no position to offer help in driving the British out of India. Therefore, in February 1943, according to the secret papers, Bose turned his back on his legionnaires and slipped secretly away aboard a submarine bound for Japan.
The Indian legionnaires were eventually sent back to India, where all were released after short jail sentences. But when the British put three of their senior officers on trial near Delhi there were mutinies in the army and protests on the streets.
"With the British now aware that the Indian army could no longer be relied upon by the Raj to do its bidding, independence followed soon after," says the BBC story based on secret British files of an era that belonged to a crucial phase in the history of Indian freedom movement.
So was it Gandhi's non-violent campaign or British assessment that the Raj could not feel secure with the Indian army any more that really led to India s independence? It would seem like a rude question to greet anyone on their birthday. But good historiography is often measured by the rude questions it poses.
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Gujarat is Mahatma Gandhi's home state but it is ruled by advocates of his rightwing Hindutva detractors. This is reflected in the state s school curriculum. Thus, the Class 10 social studies textbook has chapters on "Hitler, the Supremo" and "Internal Achievements of Nazism" without any discussion of the "negative aspects".
But the Class 8 textbook has a long discussion of "negative aspects" of the non-cooperation movement led by Gandhi. The sub-chapter on "negative aspects" talks of how the resolution to start the movement in 1920 asked people to "boycott government functions, titles, schools and colleges, legislatures, courts local self-government institutions and foreign goods".
"Gandhiji undertook a tour of the whole country for the propagation of the struggle. A large number of students left schools and college teachers resigned their jobs in large numbers."
In contrast, the Class 10 textbook has no critical comments to offer in its discussion of Nazism and Fascism propagated by Hitler and Mussolini. A sub-chapter on "Ideology of Nazism" notes: "Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German government within a short time by establishing a strong administrative set-up. He created the vast state of Greater Germany.
"He adopted the policy of opposition towards the Jewish people and advocated the supremacy of the German race. He adopted a new economic policy and brought prosperity to Germany.
He began efforts for the eradication of unemployment. He started constructing public buildings, providing irrigation facilities, building railways, roads and production of war materials."
It also lauds Hitler because "he instilled the spirit of adventure in the common people". The chapter goes on to praise the strong national pride that the two dictators instilled. There is only one brief lament: "They [Nazis] committed the gruesome and inhuman act of suffocating 60 lakh (six million) Jews in gas chambers."
Accent on pluralism
In the post-9/11 era, one reads a lot about the inter-faith dialogue which eminent leaders and scholars are trying to promote to clear up misunderstandings and misconceptions about various religions.
How effective it will be, time alone will tell. But at the grassroots level an inter-faith dialogue has been taking place in Karachi for the past few years. In a garage school set up for children from low-income families in the heart of Clifton, there are children from four religions interacting with one another on a daily basis.
Last week they decided to hold a 'milad' to honour the Holy Prophet. Of the children who attended, 13 were Muslim, five were Christian, two Hindu and two Sikh. Tahira, the school teacher who organized the ceremony, is Christian and Balbir Prakash Singh who recited the naats with great devotion is Sikh.
This was an exemplary display of inter-faith understanding. But before readers get it wrong, it should be pointed out that Shabina, who runs the garage school, takes children to other places of worship also. On Christmas and Easter they attend mass at a church.
In November, on Guru Nanak's birthday, a trip to the Sikh gurdwara in Ranchore Line becomes an occasion to celebrate. Not many would even know about the dynamic though small Sikh community in Karachi which still survives, though most men shave their beards.
Has this made any impact on the children's impressionable minds? To show that it has, Shabina produces an essay written by 12-year-old Tanveer. He writes: "There are children of four faiths in our school - Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and Christian.
But we have never fought. We are all brothers and sisters inside our school as well as outside. Nobody in this school has a separate religion. We are all just human. If we work hard we will become 'someone' one day."
Relief for women commuters
Over a month old now, the women-only bus service seems to be gaining popularity with each passing day. At least two buses ply between Surjani Town and Mere wether Tower.
Though one is not too sure whether the venture is financially viable for the company running it, women commuters are thrilled about the facility. For many, gone are the days when they had to listen to tasteless songs, feel uncomfortable under the constant gaze of fellow passengers, bear with dusty flowers on the fur-covered dashboard and be meek and mute while travelling.
"We don't have to hurry to get off or get on a bus. The foot boards aren't too high. We no longer have to deal with uncouth conductors demanding fares rudely. Nor do we have to put up with verbal and visual assault from men passengers, who always wanted to sit in the women's section even if rows of seats were vacant in the rear of the bus. Also, we now travel in air- conditioned buses and get to work fresh," said a woman commuter who was delighted about the new service.
One wonders why it took the authorities over five decades to realize that women commuters have a horrible time every day in public transport. But then, better late than never. Women commuters now have only one request: increase the number of buses and their routes. And their request seems to have found favour with the company whose spokesman recently announced that by mid-October another women-only bus would be plying on a different route. He promised that by the end of the year the fleet would consist of at least four buses.
A leading fiction writer once said: "Karachi is everybody's tart." Throwing up her hands in desperation, she said: "If you have money or clout, you can squeeze it, torture it and make it follow your bidding; whether it likes it or not. Nobody has the time or the inclination to look at the growing dark patches on its once charming face and the immobility of its rickety limbs."
There can be no more apt description of this forlorn city. A jewel in the crown of Sindh, Karachi is today a haunted place, abandoned and forgotten. Every month hundreds of thousands of people arrive here to earn their livelihood. This generous metropolis welcomes them, gives them shelter, offers them means of livelihood. But in a mad rush, nobody thinks about the decaying state of the city.
The civic agencies, which vie with one another to claim attention and respectability, have been ignoring the needs of Karachi. This city did not have much rain in the past. But now with the ecological changes, sometimes it not only rains, it pours.
Has there been any effort to meet the new challenges? Not at all. Even the new localities which are being developed at great speed, do not have arrangements for drainage.
Rains form pools of water which remain there for months, slowly damaging the roads. The damaged roads are not repaired for months together. Most roads, lanes and by lanes are without streetlights, providing an incentive to robbers and law breakers to indulge in dacoities and other criminal activities.
Then there is the chaotic traffic system. In most cases either signals are not working or traffic constables are absent. Particularly during peak hours, the situation turns traumatic.
It is a miracle that not many serious accidents take place every day and not many lives are lost. For a city like Karachi, it is essential to have traffic signals at every major intersection.
If it is not possible, then traffic constables should be posted to manage the flow of traffic. The inhabitants of this city have genuine grievances. But no one seems to be listening?
Columnist Sultan Ahmed is one of the few surviving members of the group of distinguished journalists who covered the early years of Pakistan. Last week a group of his friends and admirers held a get-together to honour him.
Those present were reminded of the time when professionalism was the main driving force of journalists. There were people like I.H. Burney, Jafar Naqvi, Khaleeq Naziri, Tufail Jamali (with whom Sultan Ahmed seemed always to be engaged in an exchange of repartee), Saleem Alvi, Zamiruddin Ahmed and so many others.
They usually managed to have a merry time together despite their demanding professional commitments. Sultan Ahmed still maintains his sense of humour, and continues to hammer away, twice a week, at the government's economic policies.