Touts and beggars are in prolific supply in India! As white people, we’re prime targets for street beggars because we’re likely to have money and to not understand the social dynamic that keeps poor people begging on the streets. In this video, a woman is carrying her baby and begging for money. Five minutes earlier, John was approached by a persistent 10 year old girl. It’s common to see child beggars in India and Nepal and it feels terrible to refuse to give them anything, but look around…in India, everyone is making a living in a creative way. Begging isn’t really a productive contribution to society (although I could argue that it’s a weird give-and-take in which The Giver pays something to The Beggar to feel good, altruistic, and helpful). The women and children who beg on behalf of underground syndicates that “pimp them out” aren’t the ones who actually profit when you, the tourist, give them money.
When we travel abroad, we usually watch the locals and take our cues from them when it comes to street beggars because there are “pimps” who control the street beggars (particularly near tourist attractions) almost everywhere in the world. Two days ago, for example, in Guanajuato, Mexico, we gave money to an old man who was missing a leg, but only because the woman walking ahead of us, a local, gave to him first. Several years ago, a man dragged his paralyzed body by one arm onto a subway in Beijing with a cup hanging out of his mouth and a little message (in Chinese) taped to the outside of it. No one gave him money, but everyone felt uncomfortable about the situation. Why didn’t they give him money? I don’t know the exact reason, but I do know that most people, even people who are poor, would drop a quarter in this man’s cup if his situation was straightforward and if his plight looked more dire than theirs. Normal human beings do this sort of giving.
In Mexico, often there are women in traditional indigenous clothing who go out on the streets to beg. In Rome, plump old women wearing headscarves and traditional clothing prostrate themselves before tourists who throw money at them. In the United States, many of the beggars and panhandlers on the streets have a decent apartment nearby (stop sometime and take a moment to ask the panhandlers for their story before you give them money–you might be surprised at how comfortable their lives are). There are needy people in the world, and some of these people do beg or panhandle, but it’s hard to tell the difference between the pimped out beggars and the real deal when you’re a foreigner. Spend some money at a street vendor if you feel bad brushing off child beggars in India or elsewhere…at least the street vendors are doing something productive with their skills. That way you won’t be supporting a dark under culture that preys on the weakest members of society.