The sight of children, the disabled and disadvantaged begging at all hours of the day and night in Pakistan is a grim, constant reminder of the millions who live in abject poverty.
Yet malnourished members of the underclass have to collect not just enough spare change to feed themselves, but to pay off police and gang bosses.
Investigators say begging has turned into an organized business with mafia controlling key locations where they deploy their own lackeys or lease out ground to others on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Some can even make more than a laborer who toils in scorching temperatures, digging or carrying cement and bricks at building sites for US$6 a day.
Mukhtiar, a boy of about 12 years old who gave only one name, is already a veteran beggar in the Saddar shopping area of Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan’s military and the sprawling twin city of the leafy capital, Islamabad.
Most clam up when asked if they work in groups. At first Mukhtiar denied, then later admitted that he had to pay a cut to thekedars — or gang ring leaders — and sometime also to the cops.
“Whenever I beg at main crossings, traffic lights or markets, I have to pay a small cut, sometimes 20 to 50 rupees [US$0.20 to US$0.50] or even 100 to the thekedar, otherwise they will beat me and expel me from the area,” Mukhtiar said.
Begging is punishable by up to three years in Pakistan, but police and lawyers say convictions are rare.
In 2011, the Lahore High Court ruled that the government should strictly enforce laws to discourage “professional beggary,” set up homes for the destitute and improve charity disbursements.
“Most beggars, if arrested, get bail. Judges also take into consideration the lack of welfare homes for destitute people and the result is that once released, offenders again start begging,” lawyer Mohammad Tayyab said.
Pakistan’s largest charity, the Edhi Foundation, said it offers no specific support network for beggars because there are too many.
Faisal Edhi, a foundation staff member, said police sometimes round them up and bring them to their shelters.
“Sometimes they bring up to 1,500 beggars a day; we cannot keep them in such a big number,” Edhi said. “Begging has become a profession now.”
Sakina Bibi, 32, a mother of five begging in Rawalpindi, says she does so to support her family and an addict husband who does not work.
“Two years ago I was working as a housemaid, but I had a really bad experience and was wrongfully accused by my employers of stealing money, which I did not. Being a maid is very difficult here, you have to work for almost 12 hours and if anything goes missing from the house you are suspected,” Bibi said.
She is the daughter of poor peasants. She never went to school, so begging is the only way she says she can earn money to feed her children.
“I can make 300 to 400 rupees a day, but sometimes it is just 60 or 70 rupees,” she said.
In Rawalpindi, the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau says it rescues child beggars, keeps them in a shelter and traces their parents or guardians, who then have to promise in court that they will take care of them.
Parents whose children are found begging can end up in jail for three to five years and be fined US$50 to US$500, bureau official Waseem Abbas said.
“There are also organized gangs who deploy child beggars in lucrative spots like bus stops, traffic signals and markets and many raids have been conducted against them in the past,” he added.
Economists say they have no data on numbers, age or average income.
“There are gangs which are operating in different cities and they use orphans and runaway children to beg in crowded places,” economic analyst Kaiser Bengali said.
However, he said most beggars were in genuine need — the products of unemployment and Pakistan’s lack of a social security system.
“You can see very old people, who can barely walk or see, begging on the roads of Karachi and other cities, because they have no family or old age homes to take care of them,” he added.
According to the UN, around 49 percent of the estimated 180 million population of Pakistan live in poverty.
Private philanthropy is huge, with charity one of the five pillars of Islam.
The independent Pakistan Center for Philanthropy says around 70 billion rupees is donated annually, mostly straight into the hands of individuals to alleviate immediate hardship or to religious organizations.
Islamabad police claim to have launched a crackdown, but Haroon Yahya, a senior police official in Rawalpindi, says arrests are pointless.
“It has become so lucrative that they do not care about arrest or imprisonment for a month,” Yahya said.
“Most of them are now working in groups and protect each other. Police have busted many gangs, but after some time they again regroup,” he said.