Rehabilitating Colombo’s vagrants But even the Ridiyagama Camp built at a cost of Rs 80 million is overcrowded

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By 2018-01-07

BY Kalana Krishantha

The Ministry of Megapolis and Western Province Development has prohibited begging in the city of Colombo from 1 January, in a bid to 'reduce the inconvenience caused to the public and as part of the Colombo City beautification project.'

Without stopping at that, the Ministry announced that Colombo's beggars would be sent to a special facility at Ridiyagama, Ambalantota, built at a cost of Rs 80 million, to rehabilitate and make them employable.

A couple of days after the dawn of the New Year, Ceylon Today ventured to find out whether the authorities had actually rounded up all the beggars in the city and sent them off for rehabilitation.

On a visit to several areas such as the Pettah Main Market, Borella Junction and the vicinity of the Dewatagaha Mosque at Town Hall – where a large number of beggars and destitute people were a common sight earlier, we saw a significant reductionin their numbers. The few who were there were reluctant to speak to the media. They were full of suspicion and hesitation.

Finally, two women begging near the Dewatagaha Mosque were willing to share their thoughts. One of them said she was from Rajagiriya and was asking a few rupees from kind strangers in order to take care of her three young children. "I have no one to take care of me and my children. If I don't do this, there is no other way for us to live. We will starve to death," she said.

When asked about what happened to the other beggars she said, "We don't know what has happened to them. There is some rumour that they were rounded up and taken somewhere. Some say they were taken to some facility at Ridiyagama, but we don't know."

She was full of criticism for the Government's move to rid Colombo of beggars. "There are so many scams taking place in the country. People in high places are robbing billions of public money. But, they are living freely. They travel around in super luxury vehicles. But the law can't touch them. The law is only applied only to the poor and destitute."

She did not consent to our request to photograph her saying, "Many times people came and took our photos. Nothing came of it. We are still here. There's nobody to help us."

Borella Underpass served as refuge for a large number of beggars from the harsh sun and torrential rain for a long time. But, after the Megapolis Ministry decision to remove all beggars from Colombo, there were hardly any there. On the steps leading to the Underpass, a lone woman was seated with her palm outstretched.

Begging for pocket money

She said she was from Ragama. When asked whether she had any family she said, "Yes, I have a family." But it was her reply to our next question that really stumped us. When asked whether her family cared for her, and what led her to begging on the streets, she said, "My family cares for me. They haven't abandoned me. I just want to earn some pocket money, that's why I'm begging on the streets."

After talking to few more destitute people on the street, we came to the realization that a number of them were suffering from some form of psychological affliction. The other significant discovery was that there were no child beggars on the streets of Colombo.

According to Charity Commissioner of the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), Palitha Nanayakkara, his institution is only responsible for street children. "When we come across childbeggars or street children, if they have no parents, what we do is send them to the children's home we maintain at Battaramulla. Some of them suffer from physical or psychological disabilities. We give them a small allowance."

Numerous attempts to contact any responsible officer at the Ministry of Megapolis and UDA failed, as all of them claimed to be busy with meetings to spare a few minutes to talk about this important social issue. Ridiyagama Detention Centre, where the rounded-up Colombo beggars were supposed to be rehabilitated, is located in Ambalantota in the Southern Province. It is run by the Department of Social Services. When contacted, Provincial Social Services Commissioner Mahesh Rajitha Karunanayake, told Ceylon Today that at the moment, the Ridiyagama facility is facing numerous issues with the latest influx of beggars.

"The camp is built to facilitate about 450 people. However, now there are around 550-600 detainees at the camp, making the available resources insufficient to cater to the increased number of people." When asked permission to visit the camp, he rejected our request saying that he could not help us because most of the detainees have been directed there following a court ruling.
(Pix by Sarath Kumara)

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