Bangladesh to ban begging in public places and the poorest worry

DHAKA, Bangladesh - After her husband left and monsoon rains washed away her straw hut, Rowshan Ara felt she had no choice but to head to Bangladesh's teeming capital.

DHAKA, Bangladesh - After her husband left and monsoon rains washed away her straw hut, Rowshan Ara felt she had no choice but to head to Bangladesh's teeming capital.

Now, she and her two small children survive in Dhaka by begging, among countless beggars crowding the city's broken pavement and traffic-clogged streets.

But Bangladesh's young government last month ordered a crackdown on begging in public places, imperilling the livelihoods of Ara and tens of thousands of others who make up the poorest of the poor. The law carries a maximum sentence of three months in jail.

"How will I survive if I can't beg?" asks Ara.

She worked briefly as a housemaid but she left that job because employers didn't want her children around and she had nowhere else to leave them. For a time, she says, she sold her body on the streets, but she refuses to return to that life.

"Now, I beg," she says from her sidewalk post outside the country's glitziest shopping mall. "It's given me a chance to always keep my kids with me."

She earns an average of 150 takas (about C$2.60) a day, enduring long hours in the brutal sun and making just enough to get by. She doesn't know what she'll do if she's forced from the streets.

Details on the implementation of the law are still being negotiated, and it's not clear when authorities will begin the crackdown, says Mir Md. Aslam, a spokesman for the Ministry of Social Welfare.

The country's new government, which came to power in January, aims to eliminate begging completely within five years, says Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith. It's an ambitious goal in one of the world's poorest countries, and many critics say it is impossible.

Bangladesh's economy has grown by a steady six per cent a year in recent years, and Muhith hopes the country can share the recent prosperity enjoyed by India. The World Bank said in November that the percentage of Bangladeshi people living on less than US$1 a day has been reduced to 40 per cent from 49 per cent in 2000.

There are no official figures about the number of beggars in Bangladesh. But numbers from independent researcher Pravash Chandra Das, who now works for Grameen Bank, show that Dhaka, a city of 10 million, has about 100,000 beggars.

Beggars are everywhere in Bangladesh: at busy intersections, crowded train stations, college campuses and mosques of every size. Many are physically disabled, and in cities they tap on car windows and ride passenger buses looking for change. In villages, they go door-to-door hoping for alms.

Some critics cheer the government's hard line against beggars.

"They create public nuisance," says Zahedul Islam, who works at a public relations firm in Dhaka. "When I see kids running after a Westerner and touching his clothes and asking for alms, I feel embarrassed. It's a shame for the nation."

Bangladesh is a country plagued with devastating annual monsoons, a history of corrupt governments, and a vast rural population without access to health care or education. The poor, experts say, live perpetually on the brink of disaster.

"They are trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty," said Qazi Kholiquzzaman, an economist with the Bangladesh Development Council. "They are poor, and every year they become poorer, and many of them slowly end up as beggars just to survive."

Kholiquzzaman said the government's ban won't work and called for authorities to instead increase development programs for the 25 million poorest people.

Grameen Bank, the small credit agency founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, launched a program to loan money to beggars in instalments sometimes as small as two taka. Since the program began in 2002, 108,000 beggars have received loans, said director Das.

Das said some 16,000 beggars have stopped begging and earn money doing odd jobs like carrying dry fish or cheaply made toys in the same areas where they once used to beg.

"Such steps could yield positive results in stamping out the begging problem," he says. "If we can stamp out begging in the future it will ensure a facelift for the country."

The program only works with beggars in rural areas, and does not cover Dhaka or Chittagong, the second largest city.

Ara said she hopes to be able to stop begging, but she sees no other option for her family.

"Please don't throw me out of the streets," she says. "It's my home now."

 
 
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