Colombo beggars: Out of frying pan, into fire


What awaits them with the SAARC Summit is relocation to far away Hambantota with insanitary conditions and unhygienic food!

By Aisha Edris
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 city.

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 in peace.
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 of Colombo.

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 their life.
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 grievances.

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 alleged.
“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 language.
“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 lamented.

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 said.
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 said.

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 Colombo.

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