The sight of children, the disabled, the disadvantaged begging at all hours of the day and night is a grim, constant reminder of the millions who live in abject poverty in Pakistan. Yet malnourished members of the underclass have to collect spare change not just to feed themselves, but also for payoffs to police and gang bosses.
Investigators say begging is organized business, with a mafia controlling key locations where they deploy their own lackeys or lease out ground to others on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Some can even make more than a laborer who toils in scorching temperatures, digging or carrying cement and bricks at building sites for $6 a day.
Mukhtiar, 12, is already a veteran beggar in the Saddar shopping area of Rawalpindi. At first Mukhtiar denied then admitted that he had to pay a cut to ringleaders—and sometime also to the cops. “Whenever I beg at main crossings, traffic lights or markets, I have to pay a small cut, sometimes Rs. 20 to 50 or even Rs. 100 [to the ringleaders], otherwise they will beat me and expel me from the area,” he said.
In Pakistan, begging is punishable by up to three years imprisonment. But police and lawyers say convictions are rare. In 2011, the Lahore High Court ruled that the government should strictly enforce laws to discourage “professional beggary,” set up homes for the destitute, and improve charity disbursements for the poorest.
“Most beggars, if arrested, get bail,” said lawyer Mohammad Tayyab. “Judges also take into consideration the lack of welfare homes for the destitute and the result is that once released, offenders again start begging.”
Edhi Foundation, one of Pakistan’s largest charities, said it offers no specific support network for beggars because there are too many of them. Faisal Edhi, a foundation staff member, said that police sometimes round them up and bring them to their shelters. “Sometimes they bring up to 1,500 beggars a day, we cannot keep them in such a big number,” he said. “Begging has become a profession now.”
Sakina Bibi, a 32-year-old mother of five, says she begs in the streets of Rawalpindi to support her family, including her out-of-work addict husband. “Two years ago I was working as a housemaid, but I had a really bad experience and was wrongfully accused by my employers of stealing money, which I did not,” she said. “Being a maid is very difficult here, you have to work for almost 12 hours and if anything goes missing from house you are suspected.” She is the daughter of poor peasants. She never went to school, so begging is the only way she can feed her children. “I can make Rs. 300 to 400 a day, but sometimes it is just Rs. 60 or 70.”
Rawalpindi’s Child Protection and Welfare Bureau says it rescues child beggars, keeps them in a shelter, and traces their parents or guardians, who then have to promise in court that they will take care of them. Parents whose children are found begging can end up in jail for three to five years and be fined up to Rs. 50,000, said bureau official Waseem Abbas. “There are also organized gangs who deploy child beggars at bus stops, traffic signals, and markets, and many raids have been conducted against them in the past.”
Economists say they have no data on the numbers, ages, or average income of beggars. “There are gangs which are operating in different cities and they use orphans and runaways to beg [for alms] in crowded places,” said economic analyst Kaiser Bengali. But he said most beggars were in genuine need—the products of unemployment and Pakistan’s lack of a functional social security system. “You can see very old people, who can barely walk or see, begging on the roads of Karachi and other cities, because they have no family or old homes to take care of them.”
According to the United Nations, around 49 percent of the estimated 180 million population of Pakistan live in poverty. Private philanthropy is huge with charity one of the five pillars of Islam. The independent Pakistan Center for Philanthropy says around Rs. 70 billion is donated annually, mostly straight into the hands of individuals to alleviate immediate hardship or to religious organizations.
Islamabad police claim to have launched a crackdown on beggar syndicates, but Haroon Yahya, a senior police official in Rawalpindi, says arrests are pointless. “It has become so lucrative that they do not care about arrest or imprisonment for a month,” he said. “Most of them are now working in groups and protect each other. Police have busted many gangs, but after some time they again regroup.”