A harsh winter stares at Kathmandu’s homelessEven though the prime minister has repeatedly pledged to make Nepal ‘beggar-free’, there are no real plans on how the government will do that.
Sunita Nepali has been begging in front of the Sankata Temple for the past 15 years. Every morning at 6, Nepali makes the hike from Satdobato with her three-year-old daughter. She begs in front of the temple till 5pm, asking for alms from the visiting devotees. Dashain-Tihar is a particularly good time for her, as Hindus throng the temples during the festival season.
“On average, I earn Rs 300 every day begging here,” said the 45-year-old, who started begging after a hip injury prevented her from working as a daily-wage labourer.
In late April, speaking at the National Planning Commission, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli had publicly asked citizens to call the Prime Minister’s Employment Programme if they saw beggars on the street. A month ago, Oli again announced that Nepal would soon be free of beggars. Earlier this week, while laying the foundation stone for the Nagdhunga tunnel, Oli repeated the statement.
But so far, Oli’s pronouncements seem to be just that—announcements with no concrete plan to take care of the thousands of beggars on the street in major cities.
“I’ve never seen a government official come to visit us,” said Nepali. “If the government provided food and shelter for us, we wouldn’t be begging.”
Attempts have been made in the past to relocate beggars to shelters. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City came up with a plan two years ago to relocate beggars from temple areas like Bhadrakali, Mahankal, Sankata, Pashupatinath, Swyambhunath, Baudhanath and tourist areas like Thamel to the Samakhusi-based Manab Sewa Ashram, a homeless shelter. The City allocated Rs30 million to relocate the homeless from the streets of Kathmandu.
In April last year, the Pashupati Area Development Trust, in coordination with the Ministry of Culture, had also announced that the area would soon be a ‘beggar-free zone,’ with plans to relocate around 180 beggars to the same shelter.
“The metropolitan city had an agreement with the Sewa Ashram, but the ashram cannot accommodate more than 200 homeless people,” said Basanta Acharya, communication officer at the municipal office. “We are looking for a separate building in Budhanilkantha. We have so far given shelter to a few homeless people.”
Acharya, however, said that they had no data on the number of homeless people in the city. Neither does the Nepal Police, according to Deputy Inspector General Bishwa Raj Pokharel, the police’s central information officer.
“We do not have data,” said Pokharel. “The main problem is finding them shelter.”
But for many beggars, the shelters are not a solution either. A few of them have already fled the Manab Sewa Ashram, calling it a ‘prison’. But with the winter season setting in, the homeless are going to face extreme chill, especially during the night.
“The government will do nothing for poor people like us because people in power are just concerned about their facilities,” said 66-year-old Krishna Gautam, a beggar from Bharatpur, who expressed grave concern about the coming winter nights. Gautam has been begging ever since she injured her legs in an accident two years ago in Ratnapark, confining her to crutches.
There is also the existence of a begging syndicate, which employs beggars around the city and takes a cut from each, according to police.
“Syndicates take beggars to temples during festival times and then take all their collection of money. We will first work to find and break these groups,” said the police’s Pokharel.
But for beggars on the street, pledges from the police and the government mean little.
“I don’t want to beg. If I still had my hands, I would not have come here to beg,” said a beggar at Mahankal who refused to divulge his name. “But once you are disabled, your own family members ignore you. Why would the state look after us?”