Begging, a lucrative business in Colombo?

  • Post by Lan
  • May 18, 2020

Begging is a common sight in Colombo. It is a phenomenon, which is understandable because the country did experience a 30-year civil war. And there are still many scars left. 10.4% of the total population is living under the poverty line and the people, in my thought, are still suffering from the civil war. Beggars can be seen at every corner, especially in the junctions or traffic lights. On my very first day in Colombo, under the blazing sun and the oppressive heat, I happened to see a couple desperately walking on the street, knocking on the window of every car that was waiting for the traffic light to ask for some rupees (Sri Lankan currency).

I was waiting for the traffic light to cross the road at Mawatha junction. They came to me asking for some money with their pleading eyes. At that moment, I recognized that our eyes really know how to speak.

They told me that they were “husband and wife”. The “husband” is a person with disability himself. Both his arms end in stumps just below the elbow. His “wife” seems so much sick and gets injured in her leg. They have 2 sons, one is 6 and the other is 8. Money earned from begging is their only source of income. They apparently could not afford the tuition fee for their kids. When there is no education, there will be no better future…

I rarely give money to disadvantaged people because I am also a poor intern and I personally think it is not sustainable giving them money. Nevertheless, I felt a great sorrow for this couple and decided to give them some rupees and walked home instead of taking a tuk tuk (three-wheel car motorcycle). Their pleading eyes stay in my mind on the way home and I wanted to make some extra effort in order to help them find a job. The wife is fully functional and there might be some jobs she can do…Thanks to a Sri Lankan friend, I got to know a Humanitarian group in Colombo. I contacted them the next day in the hope that they could do something to help, not forgetting to attach a picture of this couple.

Very soon, I heard back from them the day after. The humanitarian group asked me not to involve and to stay away from this couple. They are not husband and wife. They both belong to a group of beggars, which is managed by a mafia organization. The man has been there around 20 years and always been in the top earner list. He is drug addicted. He normally gets two women accompanying him to act as his wife. And the worst part of the story is the way he destroyed himself to earn a living. He was not born with disability. He damaged his right arm by putting it on the railway when the train came… His physical disability makes people feel so sorry for him and he began earning good money. Later, he decided to destroy his left arm in the same way to earn more…I just can’t understand the logic behind it. It is disgusting the way he damaged himself and took advantage of people mercy to make business…

Anyway, so far so good, they actually have jobs. Begging is the job they are doing and people kindness is their sale strategy.

In Colombo, begging is a business, a lucrative business. According to an independent survey carried out in 2015, many beggars in Colombo earn LKR 4,000 – LKR 6,000 (USD 27 to USD40 more or less) per day through begging alone. I remembered reading somewhere that Sri Lanka is reported to be the only country in the South Asia where the beggar population is rich and possesses bank accounts.

I do believe that there are still many genuine needy struggling with this life. But it is very difficult to differentiate the beggars who actually need help and those who don’t which makes humanitarian work much more challenging…