State vs ‘professional beggars’

  • Poverty is not a choice

Capitalism thrives on the myth of ‘choice’. This allows us to lay blame on disempowered individuals for making ‘wrong’ choices, and exonerate unjust systems for setting the groundwork. Those who are financially secure would rather believe that they’ve attained their stature not by chance, but by the sheer force of intelligence and hard work. And to settle any cognitive dissonance, we revere the rich assuming that they are even smarter and more hardworking than we are.

And what of those poorer than us? Lazier, dumber, probably immoral, and certainly less deserving of success. When political leaders speak of ‘ending poverty’ while preserving the capitalist order, their objective is a cosmetic fix to a disorder with no hope for resolution.

We are reminded of this reprehensible objective with a reinvigorated anti-beggar drive: using the blessed month of Ramzan to bring the hammer down on the weakest, most underprivileged among us. Knowing full well that poverty is an irremovable feature and not a bug of an entrenched class system, its defenders choose to take action against the poor instead.

The Punjab Vagrancy Ordinance 1958 deems ‘vagrancy’– or begging, in simpler terms– a criminal offense. In legal practice, as well as in public perception, there is a comical obsession with distinguishing ‘truly deserving’ beggars who ask for alms out of genuine financial desperation, from ‘professional’ beggars who are exploiting the public’s generosity, not to survive but to enrich themselves.

‘Vagrancy’ is never a lifestyle choice. There’s constant speculation that the poor prefer begging for alms at busy intersections, inhaling car smoke for hours in scorching heat, because it’s somehow easier than honest labour. This speculation must be shot in the face wherever it pops up; for it is either intellectually dishonest, insufferably elitist, or both. Anyone who suspects street begging of being a get-rich-quick scheme, is invited to test his hypothesis by spending five days in rags at Kalima Chowk. One would reject this challenge not due to an overabundance of ‘dignity’ as one might pretend, but because one wouldn’t be keen on huffing Suzuki smoke at 40˚C, eight to nine hours a day.

However, in an economic system that’s built on privatizing power and socializing blame, we wouldn’t want to admit that the beggars are begging for reasons other than their own ‘bad decision’. They chose heroin, perhaps, and poverty naturally followed. They willingly associated themsevles with bad people maybe, and suffered catastropshically in the process. Or worse, they are financially stable people merely ‘pretending’ to be poor; because how unlikely it would be to find ‘genuine’ poverty in our perfectly fair system.

Who is a vagrant? Not someone asking the IMF, the USA, or Saudi Arabia for ‘financial resucitation’. There is some humour in imagining the same condescending language for statesmen as we use casually for ‘beggars’ in the street. “Don’t give them money! They’re defense-addicts! They’ll just spend it all on weapons!” Unlike disabled, under-educated or politically disadvantaged beggars in the streets, the ‘bad choices’ of the rich rarely get in the way of prosperity. Consider, for example, the monumental bad decisions that led to the financial crisis of 2008 in the USA, in which all the decision-makers were bailed out by public funds. Similar privileges are handed out to the wealthy in Pakistan, through tax cuts, corporate subsidies, and casual subversion of justice in their favour.

The only people whose bad choices in life are beyond forgivness, are the destitute. Those who “dress up” and “pretend” to be transgender, to trick people into giving them money. Those who use crying babies as props to pluck deviously at our heartstrings in their mission to get rich. Those who bear more children just to use them for begging. It is these humans that we’re asked to fear, rather than ‘beggars’ in higher offices and work bosses who do not pay their workers for months at a time.

We are encouraged to trust the rich and despise the underclass. That hatred is palpable in any informal conversation with a friend, ranting about the ‘professional beggars’ and the ‘beggar mafia’. They’re out to get us, you know. Filthy, greedy, deceptive, ‘chalaak’, vagrants conspiring to take away our precious ten-rupee notes by hook or by crook.

Perhaps the most abominable of them all, are the efforts to shame the compassionate into withholding their kindness; by explaining how giving alms to the beggars makes things worse. It encourages child begging, they say. They’ll spend it all on drugs and alcohol, we’re told. What we aren’t told, is an alternative that doesn’t put humanity to shame. The alternative is to let them starve, which is supposedly more ‘logical’ than opening our hearts to them. People cannot break free of ‘drug addictions’ without food and shelter. People cannot shake themselves free of control from criminal organization, without financial independence.

‘Begging’ is not a lifestyle. It’s the absence of a lifestyle. It’s mould growing on the surface of a rotten socioeconomic order. Treating ‘vagrancy’ as a disorder in itself, rather than a symptom of a failed system, is a brazen assault against its primary victims.