In the scorching, dusty streets of Colombo the scene is all too familiar. As soon as the traffic lights switch to red, a beggar with a brawling toddler over her shoulder rushes up to your car and taps on the shutter. Standing in the sweltering heat, sweat dripping from her temples, she motions to her mouth indicating that she and the baby are hungry.
Or, of course, there’s middle-aged man who painfully hobbles up to you holding up his sarong– exhibiting his polio leg. He stretches out a dry cracked palm and pleads for a few rupees.
Question is… do you give them money? Or do you shake your head resolutely and ignore them?
I’ve always felt a tug-o-war between the two options. My first instinct is to give whatever I can. After all, they look as if they really need it. But you can’t help wondering why a mother would bring her child into the vehicle-fume-filled roads and burning heat of the day to be used as a prop for collecting money. I’ve heard stories that those children may in fact not be their offspring.
There’s a woman who carries a child around over the bridge at the Maradana railway tracks. The motor-spare parts shop owners in the area say that she collects a few thousand rupees each day (more than what an average Sri Lankan earns), returning home to blow it all on drugs.
And the man with the polio leg? Well, there’s one down Dharamapala Mawatha, Colombo 07. He hassles people stopped at the traffic lights. He’s been spotted dashing into the pharmacy close by to change all his coins into notes and hurrying back out to be in time for his accomplice- the traffic lights, to have a fresh line of suckers halted and ready for needling cash.
Sure, he’s got a bad leg and that must be hard, but there are plenty of people out there who are handicapped and who still look for some means of employment.
Are beggars are nothing more than artful con-artists preying on the sympathy of the people around them? And our we encouraging them to return to the streets everyday by indulging in their game and giving them money? They do collect quite a bit by begging; more than they’d receive if they worked– so begging is more of an incentive.
Tugging back from what my brain analysed, the muscle in my chest shifts those thoughts. What if we’re wrong? What if they really do need the money? And using their child as a prop is a last resort because that’s the only reason people roll down their shutters and offer a few rupees? How are we to tell who’s being sincere and who isn’t? It would be better to just give- at least you’ve done you’re part.
Then the brain would yank back arguing that by giving money you aren’t helping them and you’re actually contributing to the degeneration on society. It’s up to the government to help them; that’s where your tax money is going.
And well the tug-o-war ensues- the government is hopeless, ministers are a bunch of self-seeking thieves, how can you expect them to help the poor?
So that’s the beggar dilemma. Something I’m faced with daily and I’m sure I’m not alone. How should we react to beggars? Do share your thoughts.