In Pakistan, begging is a big business with thriving exports

With its economy turning precarious, Pakistan has been accosting other countries and multilateral institutions for financial help. That has made ‘begging‘ an important figure of its political discourse in which its citizens rue that their country has to “beg” for foreign aid which is often hard to come by and requires persistent importuning by its government.

Two years ago, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif presented a bleak picture of the country’s dwindling economy, regretting that even friendly countries had started looking at Pakistan as one that was always begging for money. “Today, when we go to any friendly country or make a phone call, they think that we have come to beg for money,” he said,

While the Pakistani government goes around with a begging bowl in hand, begging has become an industry of sorts in the country. It not only has an organised begging business in big cities as well as small towns but also exports beggars to other countries.

Pakistani media has reported that the government has recently decided to block the passports of more than 2,000 beggars for seven years. The government will also block passports of agents who send beggars to foreign countries. The government says it is trying to restrict the overseas begging business because it has brought it disrepute in other countries. Pakistani beggars ply their trade mainly in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.

What a Pakistani parliamentary probe revealed
The Senate Standing Committee on Overseas Pakistanis was informed last year that a growing number of beggars from Pakistan were moving abroad, which has spurred “human trafficking”, Pakistani newspaper Dawn had reported.

Overseas Ministry Secretary Zulfikar Haider made this disclosure during a discussion in the Senate panel on the issue of skilled and unskilled labour leaving the country. In a startling revelation, Haider informed the committee that a staggering “90 per cent of beggars” arrested in foreign countries were of Pakistani origin. He explained that many beggars exploited pilgrim visas to travel to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.The official further revealed that a significant number of pickpockets apprehended in holy sites like Haram were also Pakistani nationals. During the discussion, Haider also noted that Japan had emerged as a new destination for such visitors.The large number of Pakistani beggars operating in wealthy Gulf countries could be bringing a lot of foreign exchange, much needed when the economy often teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. That might explain why the Pakistani government is so late in actively discouraging this business. “Iraq and Saudi Arabia continuously complain that we are sending criminals to their countries, and their jails are overcrowded with Pakistani beggars. This is a serious issue of human trafficking,” Secretary Haider had said.

Officials from the Interior Ministry said that the ministry has offloaded 44,000 individuals in the past two and a half years. However, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials suggested that checks and balances should be kept in place for passport issuance, and the ministry should increase the screening of individuals before issuance of passports.

The business of begging in Pakistan
Begging is a big, organised business within Pakistan too. Lack of jobs and high inflation push a large number of the poor into begging. In a country with over 230 million people, there are reportedly 38 million beggars, with the average daily amount a beggar collects having been estimated to be Rs 2,000 in Karachi, Rs 1,400 in Lahore, and Rs 950 in Islamabad, the Dawn had reported two months ago. The national average amount per beggar is Rs 850, Annually, the beggars extract $42 billion dollars, which is more than 12% of Pakistan’s GDP.

There are more than 130,000 beggars in Karachi and 300,000 beggars come from other cities every year before Ramazan, The Pakistan Tribune reported last year.

The business is so competitive that often there are turf wars between beggars for lucrative spots. In April, a Karachi court dismissed an application filed by a beggar, seeking direction for the registration of an FIR against four other beggars. The applicant asked the court to order registration of a case against the accused who harassed her at gunpoint and threatened her to vacate a begging spot near the bus stop. The police investigation revealed that both the parties had been filing complaints against each other in a long turf war for lucrative spots. The court dismissed the application, saying that it could not make a decision that involved an illegal demand to adjudicate “turf wars over territory”.

The business of begging is as old as Pakistan’s economic troubles. A survey done on beggars in Karachi in 2010 for the National Council for Social Welfare revealed that 58% of beggars interviewed declined to accept alternative jobs. Twenty-four per cent of them already were skilled in carpentry, shoe-making, tailoring, etc. The number of men between the ages of 20 and 40 years was comparatively high.

The government has struggled for long to abolish beggary and there have been calls for social boycott of beggars too. Police action on beggars doesn’t produce desired results. In 2011, hundreds of beggars clashed with police officials in Faisalabad and threw stones and bricks at the police station. “They can’t just round us up like we are criminals,” a beggar told The Express Tribune. “Since when has begging become a crime in Pakistan? We will stop begging the moment our government stops begging from the IMF and other foreign countries.”

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