Chennai Journal
Sunday, October 21, 2007
While in Kolkata I had the idea to write a post about begging, since it is such a part of the landscape especially in large cities (though less in Chennai than elsewhere.). Begging is also big business. There was a story last year about the "richest beggar in Bombay" who owns a couple of flats and has healthy assets stashed away. One number floating around --who knows if it's true--is that beggars in Bombay alone earn about 180 crore (about $40 million) per year. One writer estimates that a beggar plying one particularly busy intersection in Bangalore takes in as much per month as a software engineer.

You see a guy like the one pictured above, huddled on the street in Darjeeling, all bundled up, or an old woman outside a fabric store frequented by wealthy Indians and foreigners, or a one-armed mother with a small baby follows you in the airport parking lot in Bombay or Delhi and taps on the taxi cab window. What do you do? Though we may feel ourselves special "targets", foreigners are obviously not the only ones solicited--beggars could never make a living from us since we're too few in number. The reaction is mixed. Some hand over a 2 or a 5 rupee piece, some ignore the beggars, and some brush them aside. People say to give a child a piece of fruit or candy, rather than money that will only be taken by the adult who sent him or her into the street to beg. Since coming to India, I have done all of these.

Beggars are seldom on their own, though they may appear so. The crippled man with a tin cup who waits for cars at a busy intersection, or the child who follows you out of Mother Teresa's house, is part of a community--on the front lines because their youth, age, or disability will attract sympathy. Some, born with defects or unable to work because of an accident or other misfortune, may have few other choices. But, as everywhere, begging is also a way of life, and a livelihood, co-existing with the small entrepreneur who sells seasonal fruit, or the streetside barber. It may be a family tradition, with the territory passed on--for beggars can be very territorial. There are stories that children and women in particular may be deliberately maimed to attract sympathy, and there was a scandal last year or so that some doctors have been involved in this, as part of a "beggar mafia."

There is an old man who stands outside a nearby grocery store that is frequented by foreigners (Amma Naana which means Grandma's). I call him Marty's beggar because Marty often slipped him a 5 rupee piece and I sometimes do as well. Of course, we are not the only ones, and I suspect this guy takes in a fair haul. But he also works. You often see him picking through garbage and pulling out bits of things that can be collected and sold.
I remember last year meeting a fellow traveler in Darjeeling, an Australian who comes to India fairly often. Years ago, he befriended a young girl who was begging outside a temple and wound up paying for her education at a convent school in Darjeeling. She is now a teacher herself, not wealthy, but happy because she has an apartment and a microwave oven.

You have to come to your own conclusions about how to handle beggars--and sometimes, as in the cases above, it's just situational. While in Kolkata, I found it difficult to walk a block without someone soliciting me. I didn't give to a single beggar while there. But I did make a resolution. Although begging may be a business, and some beggars (like the millioniare in Bombay) even dress for the part, there are still many, many destitute people here who do not have sufficient means to live without help. So for every beggar who approaches me now, I put aside a small sum, which I'll donate when I leave to a worthy organization that is helping people get a real livelihood.

It is always good to tip the very elderly beggars as chances are they really are destitute and not part of a racket. Also, whenever you shop at a really posh mall, be sure to get your shoes shined by the humble shoeshine man sitting outside the building waiting for customers. Or do buy something small from the small corner shop in your neighborhood. Consumers should patronize these humble entrepreneurs who are trying so hard to keep themselves and their families away from a life of begging and destitution.

And finally if you are charitably inclined, please do fund education programs. While I generally dislike charity-driven education (education and health care are too important to be left to the whims of charity, however well-meaning), any money spent in this area is better than other philanthropic schemes like micro-finance, etc.
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