Despite India's rapid economic growth in recent years, poverty and begging are still among the biggest issues in India. For a foreign tourist who's not used to seeing so much widespread poverty, it can be confronting and difficult to resist giving money. However, the reality is that it's likely you're not actually helping.
Important Things to Know About Begging
It's estimated that there are around 500,000 beggars in India -- half a million people!
And, this is despite the fact that begging is a crime in most states in India.
Why are so many people begging? Aren't there any organizations to help them? Sadly, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to begging in India.
In general, beggars can be categorized into two types. Those who have no choice and are forced to do it, and those who have mastered the art of begging and make a substantial amount of money from it.
While the poverty is real, begging is quite often carried out in organized gangs. For the privilege of begging in a certain territory, each beggar hands over their takings to the gang's ring leader, who keeps a significant share of it. Beggars have also been known to deliberately maim and disfigure themselves to get more money.
In addition, many children are abducted in India and forced into begging. The statistics are alarming. According to the Indian National Human Rights Commission, up to 40,000 children are abducted every year.
The whereabouts of more than 10,000 of them remains unknown. What's more, it's estimated that 300,000 children across India are drugged, beaten and made to beg every day. It's a multi-million dollar industry that's controlled by human trafficking cartels. Police do little to address the problem, because they often assume that the children are with family members or other people who know them.
Plus, there are inconsistencies in the law on how to deal with child beggars. Many are too young to be punished.
Quite a bit of welfare work in India has been directed at reducing begging, including provided beggars with jobs, with varying degrees of success. The most common problem is that the beggars are so used to begging that they actually prefer not to work. In addition, many of them make more money from begging that what they would if they did work.
Where is Begging Most Likely to be Encountered?
Begging is most prevalent anywhere that there are tourists. This includes important monuments, railway stations, religious and spiritual sites, and shopping districts. In big cities, beggars will often be found at major traffic intersections as well, where they approach vehicles while the lights are red.
Some states in India have a larger number of beggars than others. According to the latest government census results (2011), West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have the most beggars. Child begging is particularly prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, while there are more beggars with disabilities in West Bengal. The number of beggars is also relatively high in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Assam, and Odisha.
However, as it's difficult to determine who is a beggar, there are issues over the accuracy of data available.
Common Begging Scams to Watch Out For
In Mumbai in particular, visitors are often approached by a child or woman wanting some powdered milk to feed a baby. They will assist you to a nearby stall or shop that conveniently happens to sell tins or boxes of such “milk”. However, the milk will be expensively priced and if you hand over the money for it, the shopkeeper and the beggar will simply split the proceeds between them.
Beggars also rent babies from their mothers each day, to give their begging more credibility. They carry these babies (who are sedated and hang limply in their arms) and claim they have no money to feed them.
How to Best Deal With Begging
Beggars come in all shapes and sizes in India, and they have many different methods of pulling at your heart strings in an attempt to get money.
Visitors to India should give some advance thought as to how to react to begging. Unfortunately, too many foreigners feel that they MUST do something to help them. The beggars are also often quite persistent and won’t take no for an answer. As a result, tourists start doling out money. But should they?
I received an email from an Indian reader who said that he didn't want anyone who's visiting India to even give one rupee to beggars. It sounds harsh. However, when beggars easily get money by begging, they don't try to work or even want to work. Instead, they keep growing in numbers.
While it can seem heartless, it's usually best to ignore beggars in India. There are so many that even if you want to give them, it’s not possible to give to them all. Another common problem is that if you give to one beggar, such a gesture will quickly attract others. The reality is that, as a foreigner, you're not responsible for solving India's problems (and Indians don't want or expect you to).
Also, do keep in mind that the beggars can be very deceptive, even the children. While they may be all smiles or pleading faces, they could very well be speaking rudely to you in their own language.
Tips for Giving to Beggars
If you really do want to give to beggars, only give 10-20 rupees at a time. Only give when you’re leaving a place, not arriving, to prevent being mobbed. Try to give to those who are elderly or legitimately crippled. Especially avoid giving to women with babies because the babies usually aren't theirs.