Most North Americans are among the top 10% of the world’s richest people. When men and women who are at the other end of this economic scale see us, they know we have much more than them. As a result, in countries like India and Nepal, we are approached eagerly if not aggressively by business people and approached hopefully if not expectantly by the destitute. Giving to the latter brings with it a variety of ethical dilemmas.
As a rule of thumb, travellers and travel guidebooks of these countries advise against giving money to beggars. However, to see people picking through the garbage for food or other items of value (see picture) is a harsh reminder of the disparity between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Knowing that people who are severely deformed and/or handicapped may not have any means of support other than begging is heartbreaking. Knowing that the waiter who serves your breakfast may never be able to afford that meal makes me feel badly for even ordering it. Bartering with store owners or rickshaw drivers for what amounts to pennies or perhaps a few dollars seems so petty. Having kids dressed in rags come to you to ask for food makes me wonder how best to respond.
When I asked Indians in various cities what they suggest would be a reasonable response to the pleas for money, they almost uniformly told me not to give. At a temple in Nepal, a sign was posted which asked people not to encourage begging, thereby saving the self-esteem of the citizens.
The fact is that begging can be fairly lucrative. In one city, I was told that the government had set up a series of cottage industries for the destitute to work in, thereby providing a steady income, shelter, and food. This place, however, is empty since the people make a better income from begging. They don’t want to move into the place built for them.
Begging is often a scam. As an example, I was approached in Varanasi by a mother carrying a baby in her arms. With a sad and hopeful face, she motioned to her child and said, “Milk”. I had said, “No” several times to her in previous days but one morning I reached for my money to give her something. When I did this, she pointed to a nearby shop and said, “Milk” again. The fact that she wanted me to buy her milk instead of simply taking cash seemed all the better. I started to follow her to the shop. A restaurant owner we had gotten to know saw this verbal exchange and told Aaron to quickly run to tell me not to buy her the milk. I didn’t, much to the woman’s dismay, and came back to the restaurant owner to ask why he said I shouldn’t. He explained that this woman has an arrangement with several shop keepers that she can sell back the milk she gets. She gets a cut of the cash from the shop keepers who sell the milk well above cost. Her child doesn’t need the milk. Evidently, enough people feel sorry for her that she can earn an income from this.
Surely there are those that I encounter who truly have no options other than beg for money. Isn’t being duped occasionally worth the risk of giving to those who appear needy?
I also really don’t like getting ripped off. Yes, I realize that as a foreigner, I’ll often pay more for the same thing the locals do. In fact, in some places like the Taj Mahal, official fees are different for foreigners (750 Indian rupees) than for Indians (20 Indian rupees). On one level, I’m okay with this since it provides the citizens access to an amazing heritage site in their country while it charges extra for those who can easily afford the additional costs.
Another example of getting ripped off is what happened when we boarded the bus at the Nepalese border to go to Chitwan. A man who sounded very official, asked me to pay 200 rupees (about 3 dollars) as a luggage charge. As it turns out, this man didn’t come along and simply came aboard and told the foreigners they needed to pay for their luggage. Preying on the naivety of foreigners bugs me but is considered ‘business’ by many locals.
Speaking of getting scammed, I’ve also been told that about 70% of the Hindu sadhus (holy men) at the Ganges ghats in Varanasi are ‘fake’. They dress in the sadhu garb and provide the Hindu rituals for the Hindu citizenry, taking money for their services. In this case, they are ripping off the citizens coming for help.
So, instead of giving to the children in rags, the countless men and women who look longingly at me for the few pennies they are asking for, and the young men who want some baksheesh (tips) for services rendered, I generally say “No” and walk away. Does this feel good or right? No it doesn’t.
As you can imagine, this has sparked many conversations with our kids about giving and not giving to those in apparent need and about what constitutes real help for those less fortunate than us. India and Nepal are places of incredible contrasts and extremes. Both the incredibly rich and the extremely poor live here. The tug at one’s heart along with pangs of guilt, confusion, frustration, anger, and even indignation are part of the experiences that are India and Nepal. These countries take a special place in one’s soul. They are unforgettable.