Begging To Survive: The Sorry Plight Of Sri Lanka’s Forgotten Old Folk

The sun is blazing down with a vengeance. Commuters scurry along the crowded pavements, lugging bags laden with shopping and dripping with perspiration. Everyone is desperately trying to out-walk the oppressive heat that has suddenly enveloped the island. The only people who don’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of the sun are the scores of beggars who weave in and out of the throng, their palms outstretched and their eyes pleading. They sit on street corners or stand at traffic lights, gesturing towards their empty bellies to persuade people to part with a few rupees. On a scorching pavement next to a bus stop in Borella, a double amputee lies beside an old towel with a small mound of coins on it. Both his arms end in stumps just below the elbow and he frantically pumps the air with what is left of them to attract the attention of passersby. We try to take a photograph of him discreetly.

“Be careful,” our guide, Haadil, 22, cautions us, “There is a guy in a blue shirt who has been following us for the past fifteen minutes. He doesn’t seem to be too happy with what we’re doing.”

An armless beggar lies on the scorching pavement in Borella. Image credit: Aaysha Jaufer.

What are we doing, you ask? In case you wondered, we don’t have an odd fetish for the disabled and destitute. In fact, we are scouring the streets of Colombo to try and gain some insight into why so many of the nation’s elderly and infirm are reduced to beggary.

Beggars are a common sight on the streets of Colombo – a phenomenon which is understandable, since 8.9% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line. This, together with our rapidly ageing population and huge discrepancies in the country’s old age support schemes, explain why a sizeable number of the elderly in Sri Lanka face impoverishment. While there is no official data regarding the exact number of beggars in Sri Lanka, it was estimated in a 2010 survey conducted by the University of Colombo, that approximately 20% of the beggars in Sri Lanka were aged.

Given these statistics, it is not a difficult task for us to find elderly mendicants willing to share their stories with us. A few yards into our excursion, we encounter Sithi Mazahiyah from Keselwatte. She is well over 70 years of age, a fact reinforced by her painstakingly slow and laborious gait. Her lined face lights up when we stop to speak to her. She tells us that she used to work as a domestic helper, but she had to quit because of her age and infirmity. Her husband died 17 years ago and all her children are abroad. When we ask her if her children support her financially, she smiles sadly and answers, “No… they ask me for money.” She hasn’t received aid from the government or any charitable organisation, she says. It is dubitable whether she is aware of how to set about applying for assistance. We ask her if she has had any trouble from the police when begging in public places. “Not at all,” she says, “They are very kind. They even help me cross the road.” She sleeps in a relative’s house and lives on the meagre sum she earns by begging. When asked whether she gets enough to eat every day, she tells us, “I eat when I get enough money. When I don’t get enough, I go without food.”

Sithi Mazahiya has been abandoned by her family. She feeds herself by begging on the streets. Some days she goes hungry because she doesn’t earn enough to eat. Image credit: Aaysha Jaufer.

Kusumawathi from Ratmalana isn’t as communicative. She tells us she is 60 years old but her skeletal frame and wizened face make her look far older than she would have us believe. She seems skittish and answers us in monosyllables. We gather that she makes the commute from Ratmalana to Colombo every day, to beg on the streets. She tells us that she left her family home and lives in a rented room elsewhere now. We inquire if she has any surviving family. She replies briefly, “I’m angry with them.” When asked if she has ever required any medical treatment, she shows us a large, inadequately dressed abscess on her foot, saying, “I went to the Ratmalana Hospital to get treatment for this.”

Kusumawathi, who is estranged from her family, travels from Ratmalana to Colombo every day to collect some money by begging. Image credit: Aaysha Jaufer.

Our next encounter with an old chap and his dubious guardian angel at the Dematagoda Railway Station Bus Stop is definitely one for the books. There are several homeless men enjoying their afternoon siesta under the Dematagoda flyover. We cautiously approach a white-haired old gentleman sitting on the edge of a platform, reading a newspaper. His name is Arumugam, he tells us, and he is 56 years old. He used work in a textile factory, but it closed down and he was left without work. “The government demolished my house in Nawala,” he declares.

We are about to ask him why, when Priyantha, 44, bursts into the scene, demanding shrilly in limited English, “What talking?” Arumugam looks up at the intruder balefully, saying, “It’s an interview. It’s nothing to do with you.” Thrilled, Priyantha decides to join the party. Much to our amusement, he helpfully launches into an excited monologue, “Arumugam sleeps here. He has no family. He drinks too much and people steal all the money he collects [through begging]. He has no idea that they take his money ‒ he’s too drunk to notice! Pauw!” He hurriedly adds, “I don’t steal his money! I look out for him. He’s like my father, miss! I live around here. Sometimes I give him money and buy him food. There are drug addicts here too, who steal his money.” Arumugam seems content to let his self-appointed spokesperson natter on, while he gazes blearily into the middle distance. By the time we leave, we are fast friends with Priyantha.

Arumugam, an unemployed alcoholic, lives under the Baseline Road flyover. He says his home was demolished by the government. Image credit: Aaysha Jaufer.

We meet Karunawathi, 70, at the Borella crossroads. She lives in a small, rented house in Wellampitiya with her granddaughter’s family. She tells us that her granddaughter’s husband earns some money binding calendars, but it isn’t enough for all of them to live on. His wages are not even sufficient to put food on the table every day, pay a monthly rent of LKR 4,000 and send the children to school. “My family shout at me for coming here to beg, because they are ashamed,” she says unhappily, “But what can I do? I come here because I have nothing. The other beggars here aren’t friendly either, so I keep to myself.” Karunawathi worked as a cook at the Wellampitiya Police Station before her advancing age forced her to retire. “I receive a pension of [LKR] 250 a month,” she says, “but how long can you make that last?”

Karunawathi gets a meagre pension of LKR 250 a month – an amount which is inadequate for her to survive on, so she resorts to begging to support herself. Image credit: Aaysha Jaufer.

One of Karunawathi’s fellow mendicants, Nirmala*, is initially hesitant to talk to us. Once she thaws, she tells us she doesn’t have a family because she remained unmarried all her life. “I used to work at the CBS [Centre for Banking Studies], but I got too old to continue working there,” she says, so she had to resort to begging in order to support herself. We inquire her age. “I think I’m 80,” she says, hesitantly. When we ask her if she has tried seeking any help from the government, she replies matter-of-factly, “No, there’s no point in doing that.” She also adds cheerfully, “The other elderly beggars here are my friends. We talk to each other when we are bored. We aren’t employed so we come here to earn a little money.”

We ask Nirmala if she has ever considered joining an Elders’ Home. “God, no!” she responds, “I was in one of those places for a month.” Was she ill-treated? “No no, nothing like that!” she laughs, “It just drove me crazy! There was nothing to do, I felt closeted. So I came here [to beg]. I have my freedom here. Loku mahathaya here knows me. He used to be my boss at CBS, so I stay here and no one chases me away. I’m content with the little money that I get.” Before we can ask her about loku mahathaya’s current role in her life, our guide warns us that there is a man loitering around in the vicinity, covertly observing us. As we prepare to leave, Nirmala tells us with an uncharacteristic show of despondence, “I’m old, I’ll die sooner or later. There’s no point in writing my story now.”

But we believe there is a point. In a country where 12.3% of the population is over 60 years of age, with an old age dependency ratio of 13.2%, elderly care is becoming a pressing concern. A study published by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 2015 found that 50% of those over the age of 60 were not employed due to different reasons, mainly infirmity. However, out of the 50% who were employed, 18% were suffering bad health conditions but had to stay employed in order to survive. The study also shows that approximately 5% of those over 80 years of age were employed at the time the survey was conducted. In Sri Lanka, aged individuals are traditionally supported by their families, but a decline in this trend has been observed in recent times due to reasons like the increase in urban-rural migration, poverty, and changes in attitudes towards elderly care.

Surely the elderly must be receiving some form of social or governmental support? There are several old age support systems in Sri Lanka, such as pensions, disability relief and Samurdi payments. However, it has been found that only 30% of the population above the age of 60 years receive financial support from the government or social services. Furthermore, none of the pension schemes, apart from the Public Service Pension Scheme (PSPS), provide benefits greater than the poverty line. Even then, only 20% of the elderly covered by the PSPS receive enough money to stay above the poverty line. This leaves many of the country’s elderly in dire need of economic relief.  Thus, a large number of them, especially the infirm, have no choice but to turn to begging.

Granted, there is a whole different side to the beggar problem. Beggars have routinely been described as an “eyesore” and a “public menace”, with the authorities more concerned about keeping them off the streets than providing rehabilitation and welfare programs for them. There have also been complaints by the Colombo Municipal Council that individuals from low income families continue to beg even though they receive monthly allowances from the Council. However, these allowances vary from only LKR 400 – LKR 1,500 per family, and are inadequate to keep them above the national poverty line, which, according to the Department of Census and Statistics, is roughly between LKR 3,500 – LKR 4,100 this year.

Then there are the “rich beggars” of Colombo, who are said to use their earnings from begging to fund other lucrative side businesses. According to an independent survey carried out in 2015, some beggars in Colombo earn LKR 4,000 – LKR 6,000 per day, through begging alone. Several of these individuals have even been found to possess bank accounts. Furthermore, there have been reports from the Western Province Social Services Department, of “beggar businesses” where beggars are employed by mafia groups. Mendicants who fake disability to generate sympathy are also becoming a common phenomenon on the streets of Colombo. In addition, there are those who beg to support unsavoury habits such as alcoholism and substance abuse. These factors make it difficult for welfare groups to differentiate between the beggars who actually need help and those who don’t.   

However, the fact remains that the streets are not a place for the elderly, be they involved in objectionable activities or not. Given that the percentage of elderly people in respect to the total population is expected to increase to 20.5% by 2030, old age poverty is a burgeoning problem that calls for a speedy solution. And this solution, if found, could kill two birds with one stone – not only would it provide the elderly with a reliable source of income, it would also effectively reduce the number of beggars in Sri Lanka by a fifth.

*Name changed to protect privacy

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