Disabled man in wheelchair, Havelock Road
Around 10 beggars have been murdered on the streets of Colombo in the past two months. The government’s response has been to start rounding up beggars. Never mind the killers, of course. They have instead set up a special unit to round up people on the streets, hold them in cop sheds and then send them to ‘rehab’ in the deep south, Hambantota. This is backwards policy, blaming the victim while the killers are still out roaming the streets. People that have slept on the streets have had their heads smashed in and, a few arrests aside, the killings have not stopped. Implying that the killers are not caught. Having a policy towards homelessness is one thing, but arresting and deporting the potential victims of murder is another thing altogether. It’s callous and cruel and seems to aid the killers in clearing the streets of the unwanted.
The narrative the police are telling is that the killings are unrelated. However, since these killings are occurring in a fixed space of time at the rate of almost one per week, something is obviously systemically wrong. With their response now it seems that something is truly wrong with the system. Like when the government sided with violent protestors to ban Akon, the government again is siding with violence, in this case murder. The focus is not on the perpetrators of the crimes but just on getting rid of the problem. And that appears to be the street-dwellers of Colombo.
Begging is actually a business in the city. It is controlled by a hierarchy and spots and even kids and cripples are rented out. Beggars do make money, actually thousands of Rupees per day. None of this, however, makes their murders justified. In fact, many of the murdered are not beggars at all, the recent Mount Lavinia case sold lottery tickets, for example. Begging and street-dwelling may be a problem, but the message the police are sending here is that they are the whole problem. Me, personally, as someone who lives in these areas, I think the problem is the people crushing human skulls with stones and cinder blocks. That worries me more than the sight of beggars.
Yet those are the people getting rounded up. I think this policy is terribly backwards, like much of our policy towards the poor. That the police are rounding up the potential victims of crime while criminals go free is absurd.