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Born To Beg


new internationalist
issue 194 - April 1989

Born to beg
What do Pakistani beggars and Western aid agencies
have in common? Ibrahim Sajib reports.

Zaman Khan smokes his heroin-filled cigarette to the butt, before rushing through the darkening streets to a traffic intersection on Shahrae Faisal, one of the busiest avenues of Karachi, Pakistan. Zaman is a faqir baba or beggar and like scores of others around Karachi, his day begins at dusk.

Zaman squats at the junction stretching out his hand for alms whilst a three-year old boy lies comfortably asleep in his lap: 'The kid is starving. can't even open his eyes .please help this poor baby. God will re-pay you in heaven,' he chants with a frequency and speed that comes from practice. The boy - nick-named Babu - attracts considerable attention. 'Goora qabaristan - Christian's graveyard - I swear he is my son,' Zaman insists: 'My wife ran away and left me with the boy. She had a crush on a young faqir. Bitch!'

But a newspaper hawker who sells evening papers at the same intersection tells a different tale: 'Zaman is a heroin addict. No-one gives him alms unless he has a baby. Until last week he used to have a little girl. He has been doing this for at least two years. The babies change, but the story stays the same. Zaman is physically fit and arouses little public sympathy when unaccompanied: 'Those fat asses in big cars are real misers. They hate to spare a few pennies,' he complains, 'The first thing they say is "Why don't you find yourself a job". Inhuman, ruthless bastards! They don't know what we go through'.

Zaman's approach has much in common with many Western aid agencies which use children as bait in their fund-raising adverts. The difference between them, however, is that Zaman needs the money to survive. Like many other childless beggars, Zaman rents babies. In Karachi, children can be rented for around $2.50 per day. In return the child earns as much as $15 daily for his or her 'employer' by begging at traffic intersections and posh shopping centres.

Karachi's growth to seven million people in 40 years has created enormous social problems. Immigrants have come from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and from Sind province in Pakistan. In the city they face great poverty.

Amongst the poorest are single mothers like 35-year-old Neelam, who has been abandoned by her husband and left to bring up her four children alone. Neelam says her husband was 'a bad character'. She curses him for divorcing her: 'I once caught him sleeping with my cousin. I wanted to forgive him but he never even apologized and instead he threw us all out. You see I can't walk. My left leg is paralyzed, so I couldn't get a job and there was no-one to help me'.

Neelam begs at Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazar - tomb of a Muslim saint - in Clifton, the smartest part of Karachi. She earns around $7.50 a day but it is not enough to keep her family comfortably alive. Reluctantly she admits to renting out her two sons: We all have to work. If the baby eats, then what is wrong with him earning bread for himself? And I only let the children beg with people I know. I don't give them to strangers'. Her two sons are able to make up the family income to between $12 and $15 a day.

Poor parents like Neelam have no option but to rent their children to professional beggars who dress the children in rags and take them begging. The sight of a thin, half-naked three-year-old in the lap of a woman during winter is bound to generate concern - and hence alms.

Begging in Pakistan is almost a science. Professional beggars often use make-up on rented children to make them look physically or mentally retarded. Opium, mandrax or other drugs are also given - usually to children aged between two and four years old - to keep them asleep and sickly-looking. Most are addicted to some drug or other by the time they reach adulthood - usually heroin.

Says Neelam: 'When I started this life two years back, I used to cry. It is difficult to give your babies away no matter how well you know the man who is taking them. But what could I do? Today it is easier. Maybe you think I am emotionless. That could be true. But hunger makes you a beggar'. Her eyes fill with tears.

Ibrahim Sajid is a journalist on the Daily News in Karachi, Pakistan.

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