Out of frying pan, into fire
them with the SAARC Summit is relocation to far away Hambantota
with insanitary conditions and unhygienic food!
While Colombo is being prepared, at a cost of billions of
rupees, to host the 15th South Asian Association for Regional
Cooperation (SAARC) Summit, concerns have been expressed as to
what would happen to the beggar community languishing in the
The beggars in the city, who are described as a ‘sore eye,’ now
plead with the government to give a solution for the misery they
are facing. They request for a permanent home for them to live
With the SAARC Summit around the corner, the beggars are now
certain they would be packed and sent elsewhere, until the
Summit is over. Their future is bleak. They question as to what
SAARC could offer them. All what they know is that they would be
soon relocated elsewhere, against their wish by the authorities.
Speculations are rife that beggars would be relocated to the
rehabilitation camp at Ridigama, in the Hambantota District
until the SAARC Summit is over.
In the past too, during the time when international conferences
were held in Colombo, the beggars were bundled up and driven out
This action, though condemned by the human rights activists and
social workers, was later justified by the government.
To the government, the beggars in the city are an ‘insult,’
especially when tens and thousands of foreign dignitaries were
expected to participate in a mega conference.
But to the poor beggars, this was a huge question regarding
Beggars of the Colombo city are facing many hardships and are
battling to survive another day with the soaring cost of living.
The Nation spoke to these beggars who were dreaming to live in a
home, be privileged to live a life of dignity, like the rest of
the citizens of the country. But those dreams have been
shattered as the authorities have continued to ignore their
Fear looming around
Although beggars are not quite thrilled about living on the
dusty and polluted streets of Colombo, bathing from public taps
and sometimes in water fountains, they are more apprehensive
about being camped in a far off location for an uncertain period
of time, until the SAARC Summit is over.
Siripala, a beggar The Nation spoke to, who loiter near the Town
Hall, said his family was once moved to a camp at Ridigama, off
Hambantota, during the previous SAARC Summit that was held in
Sri Lanka when Ranasinghe Premadasa was head of state.
He said hundreds of people died due to the unhealthy conditions
prevailed in the camp and surrounding.
Many beggars who supported Siripala’s comments further said the
conditions in the camp were nightmarish.
Some of the beggars The Nation met with had spent a considerable
number of days at that camp in 1991 and they recalled their
personal experience in horror.
“In the 90’s we were moved to a camp at Ridigama because of the
SAARC Summit and we saw many people dying due to diarrhoea since
we received unhygienic food from the then government,” Siripala
“I think it’s worse than a prison. We did not have freedom to
move around since there were security officers all around the
place,” he said.
Siripala was worried that if the government relocated them to
another place, they would have to live as prisoners.
“We might have to live as prisoners if we are to be relocated to
Ridigama. But if the government is willing to house us with
shelters which have proper facilities, we are ready to leave
these streets,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chandralatha, another beggar said that they do not
wish to live the rest of their lives in hell. “Living at
Ridigama was almost like living in hell. We did not have proper
sanitary facility. Neither did we receive hygienic food. Due to
this, most of us suffered from diarrhoea. We were not able to
receive medical attention during our six months stay,” she said.
Pleading for a solution
Lalith, another middle-aged beggar, had fled his home in
Kurunegala more than two decades ago hoping to get a better job,
but that had only been a dream to Lalith as he suffered social
injustices due to his lack of proficiency in the English
“When I came to Colombo I hoped to get a job with a good salary.
I went from office to office but they all turned me down since I
could not speak in English. Also, I was an unskilled person too.
Because of these two reasons I was deprived of a job. I wished
the government had some kind of a programme to train us. Then we
would not be on the streets begging from people for mercy,” he
Destiny had made Lalith a beggar. He left his home, to seek
prosperity but today he lives with his fellow beggars in the
streets of Colombo pleading for help from passers by.
“Hope is all we have, to have a better life like others but when
will this dream come true? If anything happens to me, no one
would be bothered but go on with their lives. Today I’m
depending on the people to help me to live another day, but for
how long can we go on like this,” he questioned.
While Lalith was pleading for help, his friend Siripala was
asking officials to take measures to improve their lives. “If we
are given an opportunity to get ourselves trained we would be
able to find employment, but unfortunately we are being deprived
of that opportunity. Our children would be able to get a better
education and they would not face the plight we are facing,” he
Meanwhile, Kanchana, a mother of one from Kollupitiya, said she
was eager to live in a decent house as she would not have to
plead for help from people then. “But I wish the government
would initiate a programme where we would be trained with
special skills and we would be able to find employment,” she
She added that living a life of a beggar was very difficult
today as they could not afford to purchase necessary items as
the prices of goods are increasing. “My son is one and a half
years old and I have to buy milk powder for him. With the rise
in costs of goods I cannot afford to buy him milk. Passers by
give us food and that’s how we live,” she lamented.
Selvadurai was roaming around the Kollupitiya market and was
asking for someone to help him buy his expensive medications,
when The Nation paid a visit to the Kollupitiya market.
“I request people to help me to purchase my medication but there
are very few people who help me,” he said. Selvadurai is a heart
patient. He suggested that if the government could initiate a
health programme for the people on the streets, it would help
people like him.
Assurance from CMC
Allaying fears of relocation of beggars during the forthcoming
SAARC Summit, Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) Opposition Leader
Vasudeva Nanayakkara said the beggars would not be sent out of
Colombo, but a suitable place would be found for them within
According to Nanayakkara, they were only planning to have night
shelter programmes for the beggars who wished to stay at these
shelters. “We will not force them to relocate from their current
premises. It is their right live whereever they want to, and we
cannot force them to make such decision,” he said.
He further said they would only give shelter to these beggars
and there were a few Non-Governmental Organisations volunteering
to provide them with food.
Nanayakkara said that they could not start a rehabilitation
programme for these beggars for several reasons. “You cannot
transform their lives because it is very difficult to
rehabilitate them since they have become used to living their
lives as beggars,” he said.
Meanwhile, Former Colombo Deputy Mayor Azath Salley said the
CMC, with the help of Social Service and Social Welfare
Ministry, should initiate a programme to rehabilitate and give
employment opportunities to the beggars.
He said that would benefit the beggars in particular and the
economy of the country in general.
Pic by Ravindra Dharmathilake