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
Sadly, there is often more than meets the eye about begging in India.
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 must hand 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.
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.
Common Begging Scams
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.
Where Begging is 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.
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 harsh reality is that, as a foreigner, you're not responsible for solving India's problems.
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 perform a service, such as small children who often dance or sing, or those that are elderly or crippled. Especially avoid giving to women with babies because the babies usually aren't theirs.