“Don’t hand out money to beggars in crowded places. You will be swarmed. In fact, authorities advise that you don’t give money to anyone asking for a handout. If you want to give, by all means do so — India has many, many worthwhile charitable organizations. Your money will go to a better cause of you give it to a charitable organization. Many beggars work for gangsters, so the money you give to them, just ends up in the gangster’s pocket.” So says the author of Mariellen at breathedreamgo, a well-meaning online travel agency.
This word of caution has sound bases; indeed India’s charitable organizations exist, like everywhere else, and perhaps authorities have this policy. It seems sensible to act upon responsibility rather than on impulse (1). And what I am going to say below does take into account the fact that children beggars pose a difficult conscience problem (see here). But there is a but. And this but is the reality of the people you meet in person, and who look at you in the eyes when you are there. This would be the same thing, the same problem everywhere in the world, mind. The difference in India is the numbers, and, relatively speaking, the degree of poverty.
So it is a clearly a mistake to believe that all “beggars” beg because they are forced to do so by “gangsters”. As everywhere, they are organised traffickers who use small fish to attract bait in their large invisible nets. So it’s true you never know whether what you give might in fact end up in some exploiter’s pocket. On the other hand the sheer numbers of people asking for money or other things hints at a much wider problem, that of culture clash between an overall poor population in India and the tourists rich enough to pay the air fare to go there – something that 90% of the population in India will never be able to do in their life.
Many people beg because they have eyes and see the visitors are rich, it’s as simple as that. And it’s useless to say that you aren’t, even if by western standards you are probably right. If you can pay say 10000 rupees (150 Euros) for a one week tour of Rajasthan, that can be as much as a year’s worth of work for a rickshawalla, it’s a fortune for him and his family. How can you prevent these people from looking at you as if you were walking piggy banks? Most of the kids that ask you for money, foreign coins or anything that comes from you, know that whatever you give is from your excess needs, whereas for them it can make a huge difference.
But nobody likes the harassing beggars, nobody likes the sight of poverty. Nobody enjoys being disturbed from enjoying their “Indian experience” by dirty urchins pulling at your sleeves. That’s the core of the question. Foreign tourists want to have a poverty-free enjoyment of India; they want to benefit from the scenery and the monuments, but not the natives – or only a choice of special "touristically-correct" natives (with colourful turbans or saris, you know). They want to feel they are in control. For them it isn’t a problem if you arrive with your wallet full of 100 dollar notes: nobody bothers them when they do that in other countries! After all (they might say), it’s my freedom to go to India and I already give a lot of money to goodness knows how many tourist agencies, customs officers, taxi divers, hotel managers, restaurants, etc. All these are Indians, aren’t they? This money will eventually benefit the country, won’t it? Such rationalizations , even if partly true, can be ridiculous too (see this guy’s advocacy of “
Not giving to beggars”).
So the other but in Mariellen’s cautionary words is the illusion that you can come to India and leave it, and continue to believe that nothing need to change in your attitude towards the general problem of poverty, and more deeply, economic injustice. By telling people not to give, and that you shouldn’t give, you are making yourself (perhaps unconsciously) the ally of a system where the rich remain rich and the poor stay poor. I prefer to give to the people who are in front of me, and consider me rightly a walking piggy bank. I know it’s often exasperating, but in fact I prefer that because at least I’m not escaping reality. I’m not changing it, of course. I don’t believe that by adopting this attitude, the general situation for poor people will one day be any better. But at least I’m not refusing the reality of the people in front of me, who may be acting under pressure, or maybe not. And I’d say, the chances are that the guy who asks you to buy his wares, even if he’s working for the so-called “gangsters”, is also hoping to trick his boss out of a few rupees that he’ll hide from him, and spend for himself or for his family.
Eventually, I think the whole touristic attitude contains a flaw. Going to another country with such a big difference of means is not unlike entering someone’s home who would be ashamed to let you in because he knows he cannot afford your standards of living. The relationship is biased; tourists and natives aren’t on an equal footing. Pretending otherwise is an illusion. So, even if it’s still an intrusion, visiting India like a tourist is perhaps less obnoxious if you accept who you are, and what you represent for the vast majority of the people. A little experience will enable you to adapt your attitude, too. You might still give, but also you’ll learn to proportion your giving to the people who ask you, and sometimes to talk to the people before you give, etc. This isn’t a “method”, it’s just my experience. I’ve found that, up to a certain extent, if I have a sort of contact with the person first, then I am more at the same level, and can give without that dreadful guilty feeling. But I also understand that I can’t demand this exchange of words first. For some people, my very presence is like an insult (“a rich foreign tourist in my country: what’s he coming here for? I’m a man like him, how come he earns 100 times more than I do?”), and so I realise that I have no particular right to ask for that relationship as a matter of course.
Does this means you should stay in Europe and stop visiting developing countries? No, but it means that you should not forget that when you visit places like India, the reality you’re confronted to is caused in part by your coming; you’re part of the problem. And refusing the consequences of the problem you’re causing will not suppress the problem. I suggest on the contrary as the only human attitude the one which doesn’t obliterate the fundamental reality in such countries: the situation of the people you meet, and what you can guess and slowly understand of the lives they live.