You can’t travel in India without having to deal with the Indian begging industry. Whether you choose to stay at the Taj Hotel or a Goa beach hut the moment you step outside you’ll be confronted by beggars. Tourist destinations and places like train stations, spiritual sites, monuments and shopping areas will always be beggar hotspots. In larger cities, beggars will often tap on your car or rickshaw window or put their hand out to you at traffic intersections or when there’s a red light.
It’s estimated that there are around 500,000 beggars in India. Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha are places in India with a particularly large number of beggars. Be aware that there’s more to begging in India than first meets the eye. There’s organization, a hierarchy, territorial privileges, gangs, trafficking and a whole lot of suffering.
My first experience with the Indian begging industry
I’ll probably never forget my first few encounters with Indian beggars, they’re etched into my memory because I was genuinely shocked by what I saw. On one occasion while having an early morning breakfast in a cafe overlooking the beach in Goa I glimpsed what I thought was a strange animal shuffling along the beach toward me. Maybe a dog or… I couldn’t quite make it out. Then it got closer and I realized it was a man. He was deformed and his emaciated legs draped over his shoulders, he looked like a human spider and sat on a piece of card as he pulled himself forward using his elbows. He reached out a hand to me and filled with a mixture of fear, disgust and pity I handed him some rupees. How could I not?
Turns out giving to the beggar was a huge mistake but I wasn’t prepared for this and I hadn’t heard or read much about the Indian begging industry before my trip.
Becoming accustomed to beggars in India
That was early on during my trip to India and I got used to seeing and dealing with beggars on a daily basis after this. If you’re going to be spending time in India you’re going to have to, despite the fact that begging is considered a crime in most states.
While in India I saw many beggars with awful cases of elephantiasis (a limb, usually a foot, leg or arm would be enormous resembling an elephant’s). Some had missing limbs, no legs, arms or feet. Paralyzed beggars would crawl along the floor dragging their lifeless limbs behind them, that is if they weren’t lucky enough to have found a skateboard for their torso. Some beggars were blinded by severe facial burns and disfigurements, others had huge tumors growing over their faces and some just looked tired, hungry and hopeless. Then there were the child beggars. On first sight most child beggars I encountered just looked like sweet mischievous kids, unkempt but ok. It’s only when you find out what’s really going on that this is perhaps the most devastatingly tragic part of the Indian Begging Industry.
Read more: Why You Should Never Give To Child Beggars
Why begging in India is big business
I would like to say, welcome to the real India, the authentic India but although the poverty is real I don’t believe that the begging is. Begging in India isn’t authentic… it’s a business, it’s the Indian Begging Industry. There are exceptions of course but in most cases the begging in India is just like any other profession. The beggar will go out each day to earn a living, not by working but by choosing to beg. Some organizations and charities have worked to provide beggars with jobs and some have had some success. The problem is that in some cases beggars make more money than a middle class Indian worker, so they choose to continue begging.
Gangs and two types of beggars
There are Beggars who have been trafficked or who have no choice and are forced to beg and beggars who choose to beg and make a good living from it.
The begging business is usually run by well organized gangs in cities like Delhi, Noida, Mumbai, Gurgaon and Kolkata. The gang ring leaders take a significant cut from each beggar’s (who works in one of their territories) daily earnings. If a beggar wants to make more money then deliberately disfiguring themselves is the way to go about it. Sadly the trafficked child beggars don’t get to choose whether they’re disfigured or what their disfigurement will be.
Common Indian begging industry scams
Beggars come in all shapes and sizes and most have carefully crafted and well rehearsed methods of pulling at your heart strings for money. A common technique is a mother needing powdered milk or other supplies for the baby in her arms. How can you not want to help a mother feed her baby?
So they walk you to a nearby shop and you buy some surprisingly expensive milk powder. Only it turns out that the baby has been rented for the day, it hangs limply from the “mother’s” arms because it’s been sedated and the shop keeper and the beggar split the money you spent on the milk powder between them.
Despite the random and sometimes highly imaginative scams I encountered while traveling in India, I found that there was still genuine frustration, sadness, disappointment and humiliation on the faces of these unfortunate people. Saying “no” to any person in need particularly to a mother and child, whether they’re genuine or not, is truly gut wrenching. But it’s not about me or how I feel, my feelings are irrelevant when you consider the bigger picture.
As a traveler in India what you can do to help
If you’re traveling to India you have a moral responsibility to not give to beggars. Giving to beggars is not feeding the beggar… it’s feeding an inhumane industry. You may feel kind and generous by giving to a beggar but what you’re doing is actually a selfish act, helping yourself to feel better at the expense of others. Your kindness is actually weakness and it’s destructive. Be strong, say no, turn your back and walk away. Beggars are so persistent but it’s their job to be, it’s what they do all day every day and they’re good at making you want to give to them. Pleading is their art form.. don’t be their ATM.
Too heartless? A common tendency of mine. Here’s what you can do instead; The money you would have given to a beggar on the street instead give to a charity organization. There you go… enjoy feeling generous. The National Health Institute found that we experience more pleasure in the brain when we give our money away than when we spend it on ourselves. Did I mention my huge Amazon wishlist?... 😉 Click To Tweet
At the end of the day as a foreigner you’re not responsible for fixing India’s problems and Indians don’t want or expect you to either. That said… don’t make their problems worse.
What are your own personal experiences with beggars in India and any other countries? Do you give to them or keep walking? Share your comments below.
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