In the midst of the bustle

Life in the fast lane?
How long is this life in limbo? Most people don't care, do you?

According to the 'Census of Street People in the Colombo Municipal Council Area' - 1998, a total of 1524 street people were counted on August 6, 1998.

Out of this number, 381 (25%) were street children below 15 years, 260 (17%) belonged to the elderly population aged over 60 years and the balance 883 (58%) consisted of people between the ages of 16-59.

In the past four years this number could have doubled or tripled. What exactly are we waiting for?

The elderly need to be housed and looked after, the children need to be educated and housed, while the in-between category need to be employed and housed. Such a pressing issue and nobody sees it as a problem.

The little unwashed and those who do nothing about them
By Marisa de Silva
She's ten, she has brothers and sisters and a place to stay in (quite a big place at that)... so why is she crying? Well for starters, she doesn't know who her parents are, she has siblings but they're no better off than she. As for her lodging, it's big alright. It's the street and it's all hers. She is unwashed, teeth-unbrushed, and does she have a future?

Over the years the media have highlighted this problem many times. As elections close in, some politicians or the rare individual or NGO may voice their concern... but to no avail. Very little, or nothing at all has been done upto date.

Rita Perera, Secretary, Friends of Needy Children Association (FONCA), who has shown a keen interest in this matter since 1995, revealed just how lethargic and selfish our system really is. How nothing is ever done unless there is some personal gain.

Back in 1995, Mrs. Perera had met with the then Minister of Health, Highways and Social Services, Minister A.H.M. Fowzie, regarding the problems of street children and beggars. In response to her plea for action, the then Additional Secretary, Mrs. V. Jegarasasingam, invited her to attend the first of a series of brainstorming meetings for all those concerned, to help find a solution.

These meetings which began in January 1996 continued on a regular basis. As the meetings progressed, a workshop, (Reviewing Children's Rights and Development with the main objective of assessing the performance of the programmes and activites carried out so far in terms of the recommendations of the CRC Monitoring Committee and to develop strategies and a game plan to fully realise the Monitoring Committee recommendations) and a discussion with the parents of the street children of Pettah were held to identify their problems.

After months of talk, talk and more talk, in 1997, Mrs. Perera wrote another letter to the then Minister, summarising what had occurred in the past year. She had mentioned how the decision to form two committees (one to look into Street Children -later deemed Unprotected Children- and the other to look into beggars) was gradually sidelined and then left out of the discussions altogether. She had also mentioned that although some NGOs and other social workers were involved in various projects concerning street children, there was nothing done on a national level by the Government.

She next met with the then Mayor of Colombo, Mr. K. Ganeshalingam, with whom she discussed various means of resolving the beggar problem. Amongst her suggestions were; creating a data base with available statistics on all the beggars, listing names, ages, disabilities, location etc. within the Municipal limits of Colombo. A similar data base listing voluntary agencies and individuals, either already working in this field or those interested in helping out, could be recorded, she said. But nothing happened.

She next appealed to former mayor Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, and quite a bit happened. A Census of Street People in the Colombo Municipal Council Area, was conducted in 1998 by the Department of Demography, University of Colombo, headed by Prof. K.A.P. Siddhisena and Dr. Lakshman Dissananyake.

This Census provided a detailed report on the beggar population. The number of adults, children, male, female, what kinds of occupation (if at all) they are in, where exactly they were located etc.

Strangely enough, even after Rs. 60,000 was spent by the CMC on this project, no follow-up action was taken thereafter.

More recently, Ms Perera wrote to the then Mayor Omar Kamil, questioning why the issue of beggars and street children had not even been mentioned in the '100 days Programme' compiled for the Colombo Municipality. She also updated him on what had taken place upto date. She mentioned that a sub-committee had been appointed in 1997. After the Census was conducted, the meetings of this sub committee too had died a natural death and that was the end of the 'beggar issue'. Mr. Kamil had promised to get the convenors to revive the process but nothing was done.

The final two appeals went to the then Opposition leader, Mr Ranil Wickramasinghe and the Minister of Social Welfare, Ravi Samaraweera, in 1999 and 2001, respectively. These appeals too fell on deaf ears.

Present Mayor Prasanna Gunawardena seems optimistic that something could be done. Meanwhile a news report dated October 28, this year outlined the Interiors Minister, John Amaratunga's plan to 'clean up' the streets of Colombo and make them beautiful. With the help of the DIG of Colombo, Bodhi Liyanage, all beggars were to be relocated at Ridigama Rehabilitation Village for Beggars.

However, according to DIG Liyanage, this is not practical as the Rehabilitation Village cannot accomodate such a large number of people. He suggests that the society should take some action to resolve this problem.

We have seen how effective that can be; Society in turn points a finger at the authorities.

It has to be a mutual effort by both the community and the relevant authorities to get something done. It's time we realised that it's not someone else's problem, it never was. If it affects the people and the children of our community, it affects us, like it or not. All we've been doing so far is ignoring it.

Back to Top  Back to Plus  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.