Whom the city rejects

June 20, 2021

Thousands of men, women, children and transgender people are facing economic challenges, as the police have recently launched an operation against beggars in the city


2-year-old Radha Bheel, lives in a thatched hut (locally called jhuggi) in Teen Hatti, Liaquatabad on the Lyari River. She is facing hunger and serious economic difficulties during the prolonged lockdown in Karachi. Thousands of men, women, children and transgender people are facing similar challenges, as the police have recently launched an operation against beggars in the city. Bheel has three children and her only means of survival is begging. Since the crackdown by Sindh police, she says, she does not know how she will feed her children.

Bheel has lived in Karachi for 20 years. She is the sole provider for the family since her husband died six years ago. She says that the rise in coronavirus cases in Karachi has badly affected beggars and low-income people. “It is hard to survive with three children in such a situation,” she says.

Dozens of low-caste Hindus have been arrested. Most of the beggars are originally from other parts of Sindh. Some of them have left the city as the operation against them has intensified. The Bagri community and transgenders say that they beg for survival and to avoid starvation. During the lockdown, they say, they don’t have any other source of income. Following orders from the Sindh High Court (SHC), the Karachi police have arrested a number of beggars, including children, and seized their money.

Leela, a 27-year-old mother of two, belongs to the Bagri community and lives in Azam Basti. She says she used to sell handmade toys at traffic lights in the Saddar area and has been begging since childhood. She says the police harassed her when she was begging at the signals during the lockdown. “My family belongs to Sukkur. I moved to Karachi about 13 years ago, after getting married,” she says. Begging is common among the Bagri community in many villages of Sindh. Some of the beggars own land and houses. In Karachi, most Bagri families live in squatter settlements near Azam Basti, Super Highway, National Highway, Nagan Chowrangi and Teen Hatti. Most of them are settled in easy-to-set-up huts.

“We are facing difficulties begging in Karachi, as the police are hard on us,” Leela says. She says that while everyone is facing serious economic challenges, police are arresting women and children and putting them behind bars for violating the Covid safety SOPs. “We have a population of 500,000-600,000 in Sindh. Only a few thousand of us live a decent life in the villages. They have their own agricultural lands and houses.” Leela says that most beggars don’t have any other option. “I am worried about my children. How will they live the rest of their lives? They don’t have education, healthcare or an identity.”

Most Bagri tribes are settled in Ghotki, Sukkur, Rohri, Sanghar, Shikarpur, Hyderabad, Jacobabad and Karachi, according to Bharakna, a community elder. “Police are harassing and arresting innocent people of our community, but they are not taking any action against the begging mafias,” he says. Bagri women, holding their children in their arms can be seen begging at the roundabouts and traffic lights at Saddar, Shahra-i-Faisal, MA Jinnah Road, Tariq Road, Gulshan-i-Iqbal, Clifton and Defence. Bharakna insists that these women are not involved in any crime. He says that the federal and provincial governments have not provided financial support to low-caste Hindu communities, who are forced to survive by begging.

Shehnaz, a transgender woman, says she can make Rs 2,500-3,000 daily begging in Clifton or DHA. But in Liaquatabad, New Karachi, Nazimabad, Landhi, Malir and Lyari, she can hardly expect Rs 1,000 a day. She says her monthly expenses exceed Rs 30,000.

The SHC ban on begging in 90 percent of Karachi has affected the transgender community as well, says Shehnaz. She says 50 percent of the transgender population depends on begging to survive. She claims that police are allowing the beggar mafia, who have political influence, to operate but stopping transgender people from standing at traffic lights in DHA or Clifton.

Citizen Natasha Lakhani has submitted a petition recently that thousands of street children were roaming the city and that many of them were being used in criminal activities. A division bench of the SHC headed by Justice Ali Mazhar observed then that those involved in child-beggary must be punished. The court ordered a crackdown on beggars, irrespective of gender.

Police say that dozens of women and children from Bagri, Jogi and other low-caste Hindu communities have been arrested from various parts of Karachi. At many police stations, FIRs have been registered against the detained women and children. A police official says the beggars’ mafia uses children for begging, criminal activities, child pornography and other heinous crimes. He says that women use children and babies to get more money and most citizens cannot tell whose children they are carrying. He says that more than two dozen women and children have been arrested from various parts of the city in 10 days. “We have sent their [the children’s] blood samples for DNA tests to the relevant department for family identifications.” He says in many parts of Karachi, these beggar women and their companions are involved in street crimes, theft and the kidnapping of children. He says police have gathered some solid evidence against them. Since the start of the crackdown, alarge nuber of beggars, including Jogi and Bagri women have suddenly disappeared, he says.

Bindiya Rana, the head of the Gender Interactive Alliance (GIA), says that the transgender community is not a mafia. “No one is prepared to hire us. The Sindh government does not support us in establishing small businesses like shops or beauty parlours. We have a population of 20,000, settled in various areas of Karachi,” Rana says. She believes that a lack of education is the main reason that her community living below the poverty line. She worries that if they are stopped from begging during this challenging time, many will resort to sex work for survival. She says that the transgender community “are not professional beggars. If the government provides food, shelter homes, education, training and jobs in social sectors, our community will definitely stop begging.”

The Sindh Child Protection Authority director general says that over 90 complaints have been forwarded to the police for FIRs from various districts of Sindh. A shelter home for street children is being built in Korangi on 10 acres of land, where 300 children would be accommodated. He says a shelter home is also being built in Malir, to accommodate another 100 street children. Similar facilities are already running in Hyderabad, Sukkur and Karachi. “We are taking strict measures to curb beggary in Sindh with the help of security agencies,” he said.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. He can be reached on Twitter @Zafar_Khan5

Whom the city rejects