Come Ramazan and Lahore is virtually ‘invaded’ by what many call ‘seasonal’ beggars who arrive in the city from different, adjoining smaller towns every year to try their kismet here during the holy month.
The 'guests', a city government official tells this scribe, actually outnumber the city’s 'resident' beggars during the month. “But it is not a Lahore-specific phenomenon. All major cities face an influx of seasonal beggars from the nearby towns during the holy month. The affluence and generosity of the residents of the big cities always attracts beggars across the country on such (religious) occasions," the official, who requested anonymity, argues.
The guest beggars usually operate in and around the major city markets crowded with Eid shoppers and make a beeline outside restaurants at iftar. Mosques and shrines are other places swarmed by them, especially on Thursdays and Fridays.
“A majority of people give generous alms during these days,” says Rasheed who arrived here from Sharaqpur a few days before the sighting of the Ramazan moon. The 20-year-old, who has been a regular visitor to Punjab’s capital during Ramazan for the last couple of years, says that he makes between Rs1,000 and Rs1,500 a day during weekdays, and up to Rs3,000 on Fridays and weekends. His takings particularly surge during the last week of the month as Eid shopping picks up.
Many ‘local’ beggars grudge the guests like Rasheed since they eat-up the local beggars’ share, according to young Waheed in Anarkali Bazaar. However, they cannot do much about it because most of them — whether local or visiting — are working for the same organised gangs and mafias, usually patronised by the area police.
“We can’t do anything about it. Their patrons in the police will remove us from here the day we try to chase them away. So whether we like it or not, we have to put up with it,” says Waheed, as he limps away towards a woman climbing out of her black SUV.
A vast majority of the seasonal beggars consist of the disabled, children, young women carrying infants and aged people. “They arouse greater sympathy and the people tend to give more generously to them,” says a shopkeeper in Gulberg’s Main Market. He says the number of beggars in the markets always rises during Ramazan but neither the traders’ unions nor police ever take action to drive them out of the market. “We can only protest with our associations about the inconvenience caused by the surging number of beggars to our customers.
Some times we try to scare them away, but they will return after a few minutes,” he says.
A social welfare department official admits that the government has never taken any action to put beggars off the streets. “A law prohibiting beggary under which beggars can be rounded up for rehabilitation does exist, but it is never used,” says the official who refused to give his name.
“The city government neither has financial resources nor the capacity to remove beggars from the streets or rehabilitate them as useful citizens,” he says. He points out that all official campaigns launched by the social welfare department with the assistance of the police in the past failed to produce the intended results because “the government could not keep these people in the police lock-ups for more than a few hours. And when they were released, they were back on the streets in no time.”
He says the that social welfare department is constructing a beggars’ home in Lahore. However, he believes it will be a waste of resources. “You cannot eradicate beggary and remove beggars from the streets just by building a home — or, for that matter, many homes — for them.
“Beggary is a full-time career for many of these people. It is like any other job. Many find it easier to beg on the roads and make easy money rather than work and return home hungry.
If it weren’t the case, so many of them would not agree to lose their limbs,” he contends.
The city government official says beggary is more an economic problem than a ‘social evil’. “You cannot tackle an economic issue by treating it as a mere social evil. No law prohibiting beggary will succeed in eliminating it unless the economic issues of poverty and unemployment are addressed. You can arrest the beggars but you cannot stop them from returning to the streets for more than a few days without giving them jobs that give a better return.”