As the crawling traffic comes to a halt at busy intersections waiting for the traffic light to turn green, they become active with outstretched hands or rapping on vehicle windows and implore the passengers to give money. From dawn to dusk, people with emaciated bodies, amputated hands or legs, deformed limbs doing this practice have been a commonplace across the city. Beggars, who are mostly seen in open spaces, parks, bazaars, places of worship, footpaths, in front of shopping centres, footbridges and even in public transports, often cause embarrassment by insisting and touching people’s hands and legs while asking for money. This is what foreign nationals on Dhaka streets also often face.
Sometimes, to attract the donor's attention, panhandlers show up with open wounds in their body parts. While bona fide beggars’ plights beggar description, some able-bodied people are seen acting with mala fide intent only to earn quick bucks with ease is indeed a matter of public annoyance.Over the last decade, the country has been experiencing a remarkable economic shift. The trend is carrying on with remittance inflow spiralling upward, stock rebounding and foreign exchange reserve hitting the record high surpassing 44 billion dollars, even in the spell of unprecedented economic meltdown across the world for coronavirus fall out. And now with the recommendation at the just concluded meeting of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy, the country is on the cusp of graduation from LDCs to a developing one.
These are all well and good for the country’s good name, its economic growth and infrastructural development, but what about the daily disturbing scenario on city streets or elsewhere, where beggars keep pleading for financial help, not only causing public discomfort but casting a shadow on our hard-earned achievements? In fact, begging malady is a poignant exposure to the fault line of uneven developments, the result of which benefits of development have seemingly failed to trickle down to this needy section of the society.
By and large, beggars stir up conflicting sentiments among general mass – from pity and guilt, to indifference and contempt. Some people disapprove begging as they seem to think they should have a right not to be approached by people on the street. But others who think a public space is a public space maintain people should be able to approach each other for help. This group is in favour of allowing begging as they deem it’s their last resort to sustenance.
In any case, begging has turned out to be a social nuisance; it is a blot on the fair name of our country. There is a perception, in some cases it is evident, that some beggars are a part of an organized racket in which they have to hand over most of their pickings to gang leaders. It has emerged on several occasions these gangs drug and abduct children, forcing them to beg.
To be fair, there are real causes for which people may have no other choice but turn to begging. Ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has rendered scores of domestic workers, mostly female household ones distressed and helpless after they have lost their livelihoods—is a case in point. Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies at a presentation revealed that 57 per cent of 2.7 million domestic workers lost work and income due to the pandemic, many of which have eventually taken up begging on the streets.
To make matters worse, roadside fruit sellers, street vendors, vegetable retailers, rickshaw pullers, footpath hawkers, whose businesses melted away in recent times, have joined the crowd of beggars to make ends meet. Moreover, every year, migrations triggered by natural disasters, climate change, social and financial shocks leads to rural people moving to the capital in droves. A considerable part of these people are engaged in panhandling.Back in 2010, the government mulled putting a total ban on begging and making it a punishable offence. It, however, was back to the drawing board after the move was looked on as a breach of human rights. Afterwards, a softer approach was thought up by proclaiming specific zones, including diplomatic ones, beggar-free. A few warning signs which read “No begging zone” have been put up at the spots.
Relevant law is in place to curb force-begging such as the one: The 2011 Disadvantaged Act and the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012 define engaging someone in begging as punishable offence.
Stressing the need for hitting the brakes on migration, the department of social services rehabilitated 2,710 people in 58 districts in 2017-18. Meanwhile, six vagrant shelters have been set up under the aegis of the government in order to shelter and rehabilitate the beggars. Notably, PKSF in partnership with 116 other organizations launched an innovative program several years ago with a view to sustainably wiping out begging by training, building homes and creating opportunities for self-employment. Others should follow suit.
While one has every reason to be empathetic to the genuine beggars and their miseries, there is no denying that our national prestige suffers a good deal when beggars greet foreigners at every turn of the road. The most worrying thing is that a significant number of these beggars are healthy, and can do menial jobs if they so want.
Therefore, it is high time to stem the tide of begging menace. Media can play its part by campaigning against begging, while public and private organizations can roll out well-rounded programs that can effectively stomp out the social scourge. Most importantly, citizens should come forward to discourage begging by giving donations to the recognized charity organizations, rather than the random beggars, thus making sure so-called charity does not lead to so many social vices.
The writer is an Associate Engineer, Thakral Information Systems Pvt. Ltd. Email: