Outrageous, you say? Then explain why the beggars flock to me, a white man, while there are ample indigenous Indian people between us? They will literally trample a half dozen of their own kind to get to me. Is it because I must be a tourist and therefore have lots of money in my pocket? Is it because they know Indian people are “frugal” and less apt to loosen the purse strings? They are aware that begging has been outlawed in Delhi and Mumbai, but they think I don’t know that? No, the truth is, a large percentage of the begging in India is either a scam, or the beggar themselves are under the rule of the begging mafia, and it’s assumed I just won’t know that, being a white guy.
The numbers are staggering. NDTV reports there are over 400,000 active beggars in India right now. Over 60,000 children go missing each year, snatched up by the begging mafia. Horrifyingly, a CNN investigation exposed three doctors willing to amputate children’s limbs for as low as $200.00 to increase their “begging value”. It’s a tragic fact that eyes, limbs or digits are commonly removed from children by these monsters.
Women beggars “rent” babies to hold while working. These babies are often drugged for the entire day so they are easy to handle and to pass off to each other. Even an act as selfless as buying a baby milk powder at a shop you have been led to by one of these women is futile. As soon as you are out of sight, they return the powder to the shop keeper and take their small commission.
In Mumbai, I gave a half can of coke to a small boy begging at Colaba market. He snatched it as soon as it was offered and scurried away like a mouse. On the other side of the street, he took a hefty mouthful and then shared the rest with his companions, two pre teen girls and a baby. I know now, if the “ring leader” saw them, it would come out of his measly share at the end of the day.
Even with an experienced eye, I never know for sure if my charity and goodwill is being exploited. As we left a restaurant in Connaught Place in Delhi, a young boy ran up, begging for our doggy bag. I gave it to him. He was thin and looked so weak. He quickly disappeared around the corner and a few moments later, I saw him farther down the street. I went to investigate the corner he had disappeared around. There was a middle aged man, rather fit I might add, eating my left overs. I shouted at him that they were for the boy. He looked a little shocked but not particularly concerned and my wife ushered me quickly into our car with warnings of “Don’t mess with the street mafia”.
Now I succumb to those feelings of charity when it feels right, not just on a whim and not nearly as often as I used to. The old men selling incense at traffic lights or the ten year old boy who runs up and polishes the headlight on my bike.
Sadly, I have grown frosty and cynical over the last several years. Just the other day at the market, I was on my cell phone and being pestered by a beggar. A young woman making a “feed me” gesture and holding a baby. She started pulling at my sleeve making it difficult for me to carry on my phone conversation. Eventually I became so irritated I shouted at her
“I don’t care if you’re hungry. GO AWAY!” Wow… I felt ashamed; broke my own heart. Is this the type of man I was becoming? Yet it didn’t bother the woman at all; she simply moved on to the next person.
It’s a huge and serious problem here and measures are being taken to help. No, of course Indian beggars aren’t racist. They just see my white skin and flow to where they have the best chance of making a couple of rupees. I will never begrudge anyone that. All I can do is try to keep in touch with the humanitarian side of my nature, to resist against the mechanism of becoming desensitized. Try to be benevolent when and where it counts, get a shoe shine when I don’t need one, buy some cheap pens or a plastic flower, use a rickshaw even for a couple hundred feet. I’ll do my utmost to remain compassionate, try to stay humble and in some small way, help someone when I can. If that means occasionally a few pennies fall through the cracks and end up with the bad guys…so be it. There are worse things I could do. Like nothing at all.
* As a footnote, I would like to explain, that while I am smiling in these pictures, it is not with malice, it’s with affection. I gave both those little boys 100Rs each, a couple of bucks in my country, and about ten times what they normally receive as a hand out. They were both thrilled, I just pray it went into their bellies, and not some one else’s pocket.