What to do about beggars in India?

by Kim on March 24, 2013 · 86 comments

Kindness

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white
poncho
lies dead by the side of the road
you must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
– Naomi Shihab Nye

The moon is still hanging in the sky, its silver sliver like a crooked painting above the Hazrat Nizamuddin train station in Delhi. Around us, the shapes of bodies lay huddled under threadbare blankets. 

Delhi train station. Beggars in India.

In an hour, Wendy and I will catch the Taj Express train to Agra where we will visit the Taj Mahal, that great, elaborate marble structure which stands in stark contrast to the India that I have come to know.

It is difficult for me to describe India in words. India is raw. India is hard. India is rubble and odor and so much dirt. India is uncomfortable. India is beautiful. India is the only place that I have ever traveled that I have not had to sweet-talk out of her clothes. India answers the door naked.

On the train to the Taj Mahal I settle in for the three-hour ride. I sit hip-to-hip with the man next to me, his knee resting against mine. There is constant movement, constant noise. Vendors walk up and down the aisle selling chai and tomato soup. A stream of people shuffle by asking for money, moving their hands back and forth to their mouth in a universal gesture: I’m hungry. Food please.

These hours on the train are a microcosm of all of the shocking stories you hear about India. An old man with stumps for arms holds a tiny metal bowl in front of me, imploring me to drop a rupee coin inside. A young woman with a burned face taps me on the shoulder. She, too, holds out her hand for money and I notice that the skin is smooth there, untouched by whatever horror took her face. A woman without legs, a blind man, a young girl with a wild-haired baby on her hip. They all move past, stop in front of me, ask for money.

A child in filthy clothing is knocking at my shoulder now. Hello, hello, hello, she repeats, the words come mechanically from her lips like the bird call of a cuckoo clock. She moves her hand to her mouth, opens her palm. I look at her and smile. I shake my head no.

I do not know what to do.

In the three months since I arrived in India I have been in this situation a hundred times. Sometimes I do give money. Usually I carry food. I pass out packages of cookies or buy street food for the street kids. 

I have heard the stories of begging rings, of children maimed in order to make them more lucrative beggars, of old men kept bone thin and starving on purpose. I know that if children are successful beggars they will continue begging instead of attending school. 

Beggars in India

And I know the PC answer to the problem: Donate to charities that work on the underlying issues of poverty and corruption. But the other side of the coin is this: When faced with the pleading eyes of a child, the brittle, outstretched fingers of an old man, it’s incredibly hard to say no. Giving to them helps them now, assuming they’re allowed to keep the money for themselves. They may never reap the benefits of a charity. So it’s a difficult call. When are you helping? When are you hurting? How do you tell the difference?

An old woman moves past me now. She has no teeth and all ten fingers have been cut off at the knuckle. She holds her palms out to me and then brings her hands together in prayer, bows her head. I reach into my pocket and pull out a 10-rupee note, push it into her hand. 

I don’t know the first thing about healing the deep wounds of India. The only thing that I know for sure, the only thing that I am certain is right, is to approach everyone with love. I look everyone in the eye, even as I tell them no. I keep my voice soft. I want them to know: I respect you. I honor you. You are alive like me.

I’m curious, what do you do?

***

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{ 84 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine Gilbert March 24, 2013 at 9:18 am

“When faced with the pleading eyes of a child, the brittle, outstretched fingers of an old man, it’s incredibly hard to say no. Giving to them helps them now, assuming they’re allowed to keep the money for themselves. ”

In the case of children, it doesn’t help them, it hurts them. It keeps them out of school, it creates a micro-economy on which their parents rely and it makes them dependent on begging. I never give to children because the only way to stop it dead in it’s tracks is to never buy or give money to the kids. In Hampi, India they had signs saying “don’t give to the kids, you’ll ruin their future” or something like that. It’s a big problem and it’s hard to say no, but if you feel really strongly about it, give directly to a local charity (although that can be a crap shoot too if it’s corrupt, which happens).

For adults begging, it’s harder to say. I tend to not, because it’s hard to know when you’re doing more harm than good and the only thing I know for sure is that it cures my guilt. The big exception I make is religious pilgrims… especially if they are doing something really tough (we saw a man crawling his way across Thailand — all the Thais gave him baht, to make merit).

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm

I don’t normally give to the kids because of the reasons you mention. Well, I do sometimes give food, and I wonder if that is just as bad? It is a harder call with the adults, who I tend to give to more, assuming that even if they were a part of an organized ring at some point they might not be anymore. But who knows? Sigh, it’s hard.

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Candace March 24, 2013 at 9:27 am

Thanks so much for another beautiful, thought-provoking post, Kim. I don’t have much to add here except to say I so understand what you’re saying – I generally don’t give to beggars for the exact reasons you state here (I’ve heard about the begging rings, seen it in Slumdog Millionaire, etc.), but it still doesn’t make it any easier to tell them no. I found this section especially moving: “I look everyone in the eye, even as I tell them no. I keep my voice soft. I want them to know: I respect you. I honor you. You are alive like me.”

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm

I’m sure it is something that everyone struggles with. So hard to know what to do in the moment.

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Hannah @ Getting Stamped March 24, 2013 at 9:58 am

Love this article. This is something that is going to be really hard for me. India is the one country I am honestly scared about and have no idea what to expect. Everything I read says nothing can prepare you for India…and that scares me. I am not sure how I am going to deal with the children. I generally don’t give to beggars for many reasons, several like yours. I would rather buy them something to eat or just give them something I have. This is typically what I do and think this is what I will do. Again thank you for this great post!

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Hannah, I do think it’s true that nothing can prepare you for India, but I also think that it isn’t nearly as scary or horrifying as it sounds. Even this post, which makes it sound so intense (and everything I wrote in here is true!), would have scared me if I’d read it before coming to India. But all I can say is that it isn’t “bad” (bad is the wrong word, but I don’t know the right one). I love India, even with all of the hard parts, so don’t worry!

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greg March 24, 2013 at 10:34 am

Begging differs around the World. I’ve heard stories of child mutilations in India to produce more effective beggars for unscrupulous adults that run a “stable” of beggars. I’ve seen for myself a “crippled” child in India pleading at me for money as I sat, trapped at a red light, in an autorickshaw who was miraculously cured when the light changed and she needed to get to the curb. It is hard to turn your back on the needy but most of the time it is probably the best thing to do. In my travels with Semester at Sea we often had host country nationals talk to us about the countries we were visiting and they often said that giving to beggars was discouraged for various reasons.

I’ve started near riots by giving one child something and then being descended upon by others. There are too many for individuals to help by themselves. People in many countries think that all Americans are rich. Of course that is a relative thing and the fact that you or I are able to travel to other areas of the World indicates we are wealthy beyond comprehension for someone in a developing country that lives on less than $1/day.

When my wife and I travel we try to be generous with tips and even allow ourselves to pay higher fares and prices when we dicker with vendors. Sometimes we’ll even buy small things that we don’t want or need just to help. We never throw away leftovers and always have a few healthy snacks and treats we can give to kids. But we rarely give directly to beggars, especially aggressive ones. Sometimes we’ll leave things for people that are obviously homeless while they are sleeping, a pleasant surprise when they wake up. But most of the time we say no and then, like Candace, we will show them respect. It is often heartbreaking but I am not wealthy and travel on strict budgets.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Thanks for your insight Greg, it’s helpful to hear what others do. Just yesterday a girl on the beach approached me asking for money and she held a sign that said “the holder of this sign is deaf and dumb” and I said to her “I really don’t think you’re deaf or dumb” and she smiled… obviously hearing me.

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Steve March 24, 2013 at 10:40 am

I’m not sure cookies are the answer either. I doubt they have any toothpaste and assume the sugar would rot their teeth.

I don’t know if there are any good answerrs to this question.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:01 pm

I don’t know if there are any good answers either.

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Victoria March 24, 2013 at 11:02 am

I’ve read a few articles recently on this subject and I find it one of the most difficult questions to answer. I, like you, knew the PC thing to do but India throws so much at you that in the end i went with my heart. If I felt I should give coins or food directly to a beggar (child or adult) I did what my instincts said. At the end of the day we all have to do what makes us feel right, and I know too well that money from charitable organisations doesn’t always end up in the right places. The real pressure should be at an international level for the government to smarten things up for the poorest people (whether that’s in India, SE Asia, Africa or wherever). Hard problems with no easy answers. Thanks for the post.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Thanks for your comment Victoria. There are no easy answers.

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Arianwen March 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

It really is a tough one. I agree that the best thing to do it to donate to the charities, but it’s so hard to turn your back on someone who looks so desperate.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:04 pm

It is really hard to turn your back on another person asking or help. I admit that some of it is personal guilt but there is that other part of me that thinks “who am I if I can say no to someone who needs me.” But then again, you know that saying no is the best thing for them. It’s hard…

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Ross March 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

Beautiful post Kim. I have to say looking ahead to our time in India, I’m honestly not sure how I would react when meeting eyes with a frail child or old man…I think it is easy to sit at home and play Monday Morning Quarterback, and say give to charities and other organizations who try to solve poverty, but when another human being is looking into your eyes, touching your hand, asking for help, how easy is it to then say no? Great post Kim.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:04 pm

I think you will find it is not easy!

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Ajay March 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Great Post, Kim. Having grown up in India, we learn to ignore beggars almost subconsciously. Especially in major cities. It does not matter if it is an old woman or a toddler. Our senses just ignore what is unpleasant. There are horror stories, as you mention, about ‘professional begging’ and atrocities against kidnapped or sold children. Even after having lived in the US for more than a decade, whenever I visit India, the senses kick in automatically. I think the bottom line is that you should try to emulate what the locals do, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ applies globally. If you see many locals helping out the less fortunate, and if you are willing too, then help. And in general money does not help. Donations in kind are a much better option. In addition, if you are in a small village, the need probably is more genuine than in major cities where what you see more often than not, isn’t what it seems.

Enjoy India!

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:06 pm

Ajay, I think this is wonderful advice. On that train to the Taj I did start to do that. The people I sat next to on the train were giving coins (always to the older beggars and never to the kids) so I started mocking what they did.

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Michelle March 24, 2013 at 12:46 pm

What a beautiful and honest post. This brought tears to my eyes and made me remember all of the individuals that I have encountered begging for food or money. It is so difficult to say no because the reality is, some of them may get to keep it for themselves. Maybe they really will use it for food. But there is always the question that it all may go to someone else and that these individuals will continue to be forced into a life of working beggars. For me, this is absolutely the most difficult part of traveling. It breaks my heart every single time that I say no. For myself personally, I’ve chosen a career in human rights as a social worker and hope that one day I can return to these places to help out in a way that I cannot right now.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm

Michelle, I’m so glad there are people out there like you who are going into careers in human rights and social work. Yay for you. This is a deep-rooted problem and we need people like you working to solve it. So thank you.

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Patti March 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm

When we were in Paris we experienced more scammers than beggars and they were easy to say no to. But one day when we were visiting Sacre Coeur, we came outside where it was cold and snowing and there were two women, one very old and one young. They were outright begging and thinking they were gypsies, which we had come across quite a few, I walked by them. But there was just something about those two women that tugged at my heart. I went back and gave them each a couple of coins, not much, but I just had to give it to them. I think donating to a reputable charity is really the answer, but sometimes you just gotta go with your heart.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Ah, I remember those gypsies in Paris. Thanks for your comment Patti, I do agree there are times when someone in particular just speaks to you and you feel compelled to do something.

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Rhonda March 24, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Beautiful post Kim and we are at as much of a loss as you are!! We do give money to the people trying to help the underlying issues but, as you say, that doesn’t necessarily help that person in the moment. We’ve given food, we’ve occasionally given money, in Cambodia, when faced with the thousands of street orphans, we gave the leftovers from our dinners. And we still felt horrible and didn’t know if we were doing the right thing.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:10 pm

It sounds like I’m going to be encountering this dilemma all over again in Cambodia. Thanks for your comment Rhonda, I don’t know what to do either (obviously!).

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Jill March 24, 2013 at 5:38 pm

We’re in Cambodia at the moment and we come across begging a lot – children, old men and women and landmine victims. They approach your tuk tuk from all angles sometimes and it’s definitely uncomfortable. I don’t give directly due to many comments already posted, but I have found it interesting to watch Cambodians who give. Most only give to disabled, landmine victims over anyone else. I never see a Cambodian giving to the children who are begging.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:12 pm

I agree that I find it interesting to watch Indians give. They, too, generally give to disabled older people, never to kids. Okay, I think we have an answer emerging (as Christine stated in the first comment)- do not give to kids.

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Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) March 24, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Love how compassionate this post was, Kim, especially as we all know that it’s wrong to give money to these beggar children, and yet our hearts tell us otherwise. I feel grateful that thus far we have not really had many encounters with beggars, and only a few encounters with child beggars at that. It was hard to turn our backs on them and say no, but we did it with kindness and a smile, and I hoped that made up for the fact that they were in rags and the money they wanted was simply pocket change to us. I would just hate forever thinking that my kindness in giving money was condemning that person to that life for one day longer.

One nice thing is that in certain countries in Asia, they have restaurants and establishments in which street children have been taken in and given a viable trade so that they can get off the streets for good. Now that we are encountering some of these places, I’m doing my best to frequent them so that I can see my money supporting successful ventures aimed at bettering people’s lives.

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Kim March 24, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Steph, that is a great tip- frequenting the restaurants and services that help keep kids off of the streets and teach them viable skills.

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Adam @ PergiDulu March 25, 2013 at 1:37 am

One thing I don’t like about this subject is how many people tell you what you SHOULD do. And what IS the right thing to do. You do whatever you feel is right. I sometimes give, but usually don’t. I sometimes give to kids, sometimes I don’t. I know many begging kids who would still be out of school even if they didn’t beg. They’re homeless. How else are they going to get money for the family?

There’s also the cases of disabled people who can’t work. They survive off begging.

At the end of the day, you make your own judgement and that’s OK.

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Kim March 25, 2013 at 5:56 am

Yep, everyone has an opinion, but that was what I wanted!

At the end of the day you do need to use your own judgement. But I think it’s helpful to hear what others do. It’s a hard call when you’re in the moment.

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Mellisa March 25, 2013 at 1:56 am

Gosh this has really touched me and i do find this one of the hardest things about travelling. I had a situation in Cambodia where a young girl that was begging was horribly burnt and disfigured. So much so that one of her hands was stuck to her face .. One of the guides discouraged us from giving her money as he said her family won’t allow her to be helped (as in taken to hospital) because she made a lot of money begging which then fed the rest of the family. So this poor litttle girl had to stay like that basically so the rest of the family could survive. It broke my heart … The worse part is, the guide explained that the police would often find her and steal from her to provide for their own families .. I’ve never forgotten this ..

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Kim March 25, 2013 at 5:57 am

Mellisa, that is terrible. I’ve heard those stories as well and I know it happens… and that’s the exact kind of thing that I obviously don’t want my money going towards. It’s horrible.

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Michael Hodson March 25, 2013 at 2:13 am

I wrote about it a while back — http://www.goseewrite.com/2010/11/third-world-begging-tip/ — and at this point, I still subscribe to the “just say no” philosophy.

I can’t imagine a situation where I would ever give to a kid begging. Haven’t really ever run across the situation where that would be a good idea. The only time that I consider it is the disabled people in Laos and Cambodia, like I put in my post, since my government was responsible (illegally) for a lot of those injuries.

Other than that… I think it is just a bad idea all around, IMO.

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Kim March 25, 2013 at 5:58 am

Do you give food to the kids or is that a “no” in your book as well?

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Ashlie March 25, 2013 at 2:30 am

So tough. This is something I’m a bit nervous about confronting as we head to Cambodia next week.

Begging is just one painful symptom of a global disease. How do we impact the root of the illness (which is the only sustainable thing to do) while at the same time not just ignoring those suffering in the current conditions?

I guess the one thing we can all agree on is that the answers are not easy but living the questions is a good place to start. Thanks for opening the discussion.

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Kim March 25, 2013 at 5:59 am

Ashlie, from the comments it sounds like you’ll see it a lot in Cambodia. I’m glad we’re talking about this even though there are no clear answers.

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Laurel- Capturing la Vita March 25, 2013 at 5:33 am

That was so beautifully written. Thank you for your rawness and honesty. My travel and work is mostly in Italy. The gypsies there are out of control. They trick you, mug you and beg from you. My compassion for them used to be so deep, I see that I don’t feel that as much anymore and it makes me sad. They are so incredibly aggressive with their begging sometimes. If you cross them in the wrong way, they scream at you. I had this happen to me last week when she thought I was taking a photo of her. Now, I move my body away from them and forcefully say no. I can’t imagine looking them in the eyes. Next trip, I’m going to. Thank you.

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Kim March 25, 2013 at 6:04 am

I understand this Laurel. In my hometown of Portland, OR we have a lot of homeless kids (young people, not children) and over time I became completely desensatized to them and even annoyed with them for bothering me and harassing me for money. It’s hard, but even in the worst situations I do still try to look them in the eye. They’re human, they deserve respect. Thanks for your comment!

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Carmel March 25, 2013 at 7:51 am

This is a really hard thing to face because you obviously would like it to change, but it’s so much bigger than you. You give them compassion, which is about the kindest thing you can do. I wish there was an easier answer.

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Kim March 25, 2013 at 10:34 am

I wish there was too.

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Tyrhone March 25, 2013 at 10:47 am

I used to get very upset by it all, and would be lying if I said it doesn’t still bother me sometimes, but I also realized that I have one life to live, and if I spent it trying to save the world, or even just worrying about the world to my own detriment, then I would be wasting the great things which I am lucky enough to have the options to do.
Sometimes you have to embrace the luck you have, rather than worrying about those who don’t have it, otherwise you are wasting a wonderful gift. It is sad that the world is not a perfect place yes, but that doesn’t mean yours shouldn’t be.

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Michelle March 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm

I would argue that because we are fortunate enough to be born into a lucky life, we have the ability to help out those who weren’t so lucky. Giving back and helping out others isn’t always depressing work and doesn’t always mean wasting your own life. In fact, I think it helps enrich our own lives that little bit more.

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Tyrhone March 27, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Well then it is lucky you are in the fortunate position to give everything you have, including the shirt on your back, you would be so ridiculously happy and enriched! So why don’t you?
Or if you read my response and actually think about what I have said, you would see I am suggesting doing what you are happy with and letting the rest go without guilt or sadness.

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Kim March 28, 2013 at 12:33 am

That’s definitely a way that I’ve never looked at it before. I guess the way that I feel is that, since I have had such great fortune, I should do something with it, you know? It’s a responsibility. And yet, not so easy as it sounds to live up to that responsibility.

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Mark Baron March 25, 2013 at 11:55 am

Kim
I just want to congratulate you for addressing things as you see them/issues the way you do. I think you are a great writer and I appreciate you putting your thoughts and feeling on paper as eloquently as you do.
That why I love to follow your blog.

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Kim March 28, 2013 at 12:33 am

Thanks Mark, that means a lot.

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Steve C March 25, 2013 at 11:58 am

Knowing your style of blogging, I was wondering when you’d hit on this topic. I too, am of the opinion that there is no one answer to this question. Each one of us must answer it on our own.

Before we left on our RTW trip, we discussed in length, this conundrum. What we came up with was to never, under any circumstance, give anything to beggars. We established that it would always be impossible to draw the line between who was worthy and who wasn’t. It was always very difficult, but it worked in the long run. I have no regrets. Well, maybe some!

We traveled long term on a very tight budget. Once the budget starts to include giving away money, it could only impact the length or quality of the trip, as we had no income while we traveled. I like to say that we were only “Observers”, not philanthropists. It’s not that I didn’t wish that I could help people out along the way, it just couldn’t be part of this trip.

Reading back over what I have just written, I’m sounding like a mean old man. I’m genuinely sorry for that. Life if full of hard decisions. Maybe we could have just stayed home and avoided these situations. It’s exactly why many people don’t go to India. We chose to go and we’re happy we did. India is in your face in every way and is one of the most interesting countries we visited. I will return someday!

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Kim March 28, 2013 at 12:36 am

I agree that the “who is worthy and who isn’t” line is impossible to draw and a very strange thing to try to do anyway.

I don’t think you sound like a mean old man. There are plenty of people, in fact I think most, that are in your camp. I like what you say about being an observer and not a philanthropist. I too feel that way. I think it is important to be an observer… but what do we do with our observations? There’s a point where it just feels empty to me, like more needs to be done. I hope that makes sense.

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Sarah Somewhere March 25, 2013 at 12:40 pm

We have a motto – do what you feel at the time. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, but basically it comes down to feeling comfortable, after all that’s what this issue is all about. There are people in unfortunate circumstances all over the world, in our home countries, yet we don’t usually seek them out. In India, they come to us and that is very confronting. It’s in your face and makes you think, makes you sad, guilty, whatever the emotion may be. We don’t want to feel that so we either give, or we don’t in the name of ending the cycle, but either way its about easing our own conscience. I don’t want to see another human being suffer,so I try not to harm, but unfortunately I can’t control those who do.

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Kim March 28, 2013 at 12:38 am

Makes sense. You’re absolutely right that a lot of it comes down to feeling uncomfortable, guilty, whatever and wanting to ease that emotion. I can’t tell if I should feel like an asshole for only caring when it’s in my face or if I should be happy that at least I care when it is in my face.

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Lexi March 25, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Oh my gosh … what a powerful post!! I thank you for raising this question. I too always wrestle with this. Whether it’s in a foreign country, or in my hometown of Denver, I know all of the reasons why not to and also why I should. Recently, I was stopped at a red light on one of the streets in Denver where there are routinely panhandlers. Typically, I do not give any money because I know all of the reasons why not to. This time I decided to give a healthy granola bar I had with me. It was declined by the panhandler. That left me stinging. I still don’t know what I would do for children, I think I have figured it out for adults.

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Kim March 28, 2013 at 12:40 am

Lexi, one time Brian and I gave food to a guy begging in Portland and he said to us “it better be vegan.” Seriously! He actually said that! We just couldn’t believe it (and then we had a good laugh because, OMG, that’s just unreal). I’m not sure any beggar in India would turn down food, but I know what you mean about being turned off after an experience like that.

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Casey @ A Cruising Couple March 29, 2013 at 8:19 am

This is really beautifully written, and it totally pulled at my heartstrings, making me think back to my time in India. There was one moment when I just couldn’t say no to another begging child. I gave him a piece of bread, leftovers from a loaf I already had in my bag. Seconds later I was swarmed by at least 20 more children, all pulling at my sari and asking for food. It was really heartbreaking for me on so many levels, especially because I had really grown to love India.
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Kim March 29, 2013 at 9:25 am

Yes, I’ve had that happen to me a couple of times too (swarmed by the children) and it is heartbreaking…

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cantaloupe March 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm

My policy in India was to never give money to beggars. I paid far more than I needed to for goods and services (comparing the Indian prices to the foreigner prices is mind-blowing) but in theory, that was my way of affecting poverty. Tourism is growing quickly in India and it was very obvious from the way we got shuffled through money-making areas that they know what they are doing. And that is a legitimate way to take advantage of tourists, in my opinion. Begging me to give money for nothing just gets a turned head. But showing me your factory and trying to convince me to buy four pashminas that I don’t need is legit.

India has a lot of issues. And there is no way that I could be the one to fix any of it. But encouraging their tourism is seemed more effective than encouraging their beggars. Although there were tons of shady things going on with that too…. but it still seemed a step closer to legitimate.
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Kim March 30, 2013 at 10:00 pm

I hear what you are saying, but I wonder if those pashmina sellers are already going to be okay because they have a trade, they aren’t beggars, they’re sellers. There is definitely no easy answer. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

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Daniel McBane March 31, 2013 at 4:41 am

I never gave money to beggars in India. It made me feel like such an a##hole, but what can you do? I told myself it’s not my fault, but rather the fault of the human race as a whole, that there are so many people who would gladly take advantage of the slightest hint of compassion–and I’m not talking about the beggars themselves, but the mobsters who run the begging rings or the corrupt officials who embezzle charitable contributions, etc. It didn’t make me feel any better, really, but at least it took the responsibility off me.
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Kim March 31, 2013 at 5:18 am

It is definitely the problem of our race as a whole… insane that we just let people beg for a living, go hungry, etc. But it just feels so unfixable…

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Ron March 31, 2013 at 12:00 pm

It’s been 20 years since my time in India. I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed by The poverty and begging. But after many months on the road it all appeared as a big game to me; one I chose not to play. It’s no coincidence that the tourist trail is saturated with beggars. I don’t believe I am a hardened soul, I just seemed able to view the situation as a business that wasn’t suited for me. The way we associate with the world can only be measured against the world in which we know. Being a westerner in India can act on our emotions in very strong ways. What’s normal for us is not normal for them and visa versa. I guess I was able to see a huge country with millions of people sharing a very like existence, an existence that I felt was completely unrelient upon my presence. Hope this makes sense without offending:)

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Kim April 1, 2013 at 12:56 am

Thanks Ron for sharing your experiences.

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RenegadePilgrim April 1, 2013 at 12:07 am

Kim, when I was in India I was serving as a volunteer in Bangalore with an organization that works with young women specifically. I know I told you a little about it before you left Portland. Anyways, since I was living with locals and had the opportunity to meet up with locals (through an Israeli friend, no less!), I made sure to ask what the norm was for the area. I was told to not give money and so I didn’t. I know that in their eyes I am wealthy beyond belief because I can travel. Even at home, in the US, I live a pretty comfortable life. However, through prayerful thought and consideration, as well as lots of research and asking of questions, I have made it a strict policy of mine when I travel (international and domestic) that I do not give money EVER. If I feel the person is truly hungry, I will buy them food. Otherwise, I am just perpetuating the cycle of poverty, especially in countries like India with rings of child beggars. A side note: I got yelled at by an Aussie on the train to Chiang Mai because I left a tip after the woman who served my breakfast asked for one. He reminded me that it was not a part of the culture in Thailand to tip and the “bloody Americans” had ruined it for everyone else. I stopped tipping after that. As someone who cries when they see the PETA commercials and the World Vision commercials, I really, truly feel for those who are living in poverty in the developing world. I just think there are better ways to combat it through giving to organizations doing work in those places. After my volunteer service was up, I made a donation to the organization based off what I would have had to pay for food and housing if I had been on my own. It went directly to the organization and I know it went to provide for the programs they have to make the lives of girls better, which is a big deal in India. Thanks again for the insightful piece. I love reading about your adventures!
RenegadePilgrim recently posted..The Big Blog Exchange

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Kim April 1, 2013 at 1:01 am

Thanks Heather. It helps to hear what others are doing and what they know. I know you’ve done your research. Thank you.

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JD Gins April 1, 2013 at 8:35 am

I understand the dilemma faced. When I was in India I chose to give to people directly including children. I was not able to give to everyone who asked but I did give to a lot of people who asked. I often carried small bills or change knowing the ask was coming and I just wanted to be prepared. I was only there for a month, so maybe if I was staying longer it would be unsustainable. But for me it was easier to give.

I understand the concept of giving to a charity, but I don’t know that if you add up everything I gave out it would have been considered a sizable contribution to charity, but for the most part people were happy to get something for me and I would like to believe these small gifts added up.

I don’t believe that if you don’t give to children all of a sudden they will be re enrolled in school, but I am sure they might not eat that day. I gave to children and then had their mother come up and beg for more and ended up giving to them as well. That was the time I felt the most troubled by the poverty. The entire family got something from me, and I knew it was not enough.

By giving I don’t think I was making an impact that changed their life but it made the interaction with them better. In some cases people will keep begging and following you until you are either rude to them or give in. As a travel in India the tempo can sometimes be overwhelming and it is just easier to give people something. I know that thinking might contribute to a continuation of the poverty cycle, but I was sure not giving did nothing to break it.

One way I tried to give back to India was when I was buying goods from a vendor I was okay with paying a little extra, or not trying to haggle to “Indian prices”. In those cases, it was someone or a family who is working and by paying a little more, you can help strengthen their enterprise and help strengthen their community.

In the end, I saw so much more in India than the poverty and I wanted to enjoy it more than I would if I was always worried about giving or not giving. It made me feel a little better, it made the people I gave to feel better and it honestly was something I could afford. Charity giving might be better for large sums of money, but for the daily human interaction I just gave what I could and went with the flow.

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Kim April 1, 2013 at 9:01 am

Hi JD, thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspective. I think it’s so important to hear what others think because there isn’t one *right* answer.

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JD April 1, 2013 at 9:12 am

Thanks Kim. BTW my girlfriend loves your blog. In my opinion, everyone should go to India. There is so much more there than poverty and no one should be afraid to go because they are concerned with the poverty and what to do. You are correct, there is no right answer! By going and being positive while you are there, you are contributing something. People in India were so kind and also concerned with the perception that people have about their country. So many people told me, tell your friends to come too! I loved it so much, learned so much and took so much away from my trip. I am so grateful I had the chance to go! Thanks for your blogging!

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Kim April 1, 2013 at 7:17 pm

JD, I completely agree. In fact, last night on the beach (our last night in India!) I told Brian that India is the perfect example of how great it can turn out when you do the things that scare you. I was so afraid to go to India, had no idea how to handle it, didn’t even really WANT to go, but it has been amazing. I, too, have taken so much away. Thanks for your comments JD.

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Paul Farrugia (globalhelpswap) April 3, 2013 at 4:11 am

Wow Kim! Thank you for such a great post. We have just come back from Burma and we kept asking the same question. To give or not to give?

I have not been to India yet and I must admit that the begging situation is one of the main reasons. I am still to decide but thanks to this blog if I do go my responses to beggars will be with warmth and compassion.

Take care,

Paul
Paul Farrugia (globalhelpswap) recently posted..Life on the river

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Kim April 4, 2013 at 8:35 am

Paul, how was Burma?? We are thinking of going.

Don’t let the begging situation stop you from going to India. It really isn’t as prevalent as I imagined it would be (especially, of course, if you get off the tourist track). India is just amazing, begging issues and all.

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Elma Foronda April 8, 2013 at 8:16 pm

Kim, you have a compassionate heart. I can imagine the internal struggle this must have been. I’ve been confronted by the same eyes on little children and old people with limbs and digits cut off growing up in my own country, the Philippines, as I pass them on the streets everyday. When I was a child, I used to “fast” so I can give my lunch money away, until my mother caught me and scolded me. Struggling with meeting our own needs, my parents taught us not to give away money to street beggars. I’ve been told they’ve been mutilated to gain sympathy from tourists. As I got older, I give food and drink when I remember to have something on me. If I don’t, I offer them a prayer.

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Kim April 9, 2013 at 4:50 am

Elma! How are you???

Ah, you have a compassionate heart as well. I have heard too that some of the beggars have been mutilated to gain sympathy from tourists, which is terrible and something I don’t want to support. I do try to offer prayer, always, and send my loving energy their way.

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Bhanu April 10, 2013 at 4:51 am

I read your blog and it is incredible. I am a Traveller myself but due to work constraints not able to more nowdays. And I will msg u al dat later to appreciate the step taken by you. As per the above thing. I am Indian and you know sometimes it is the genuine need of the begger but most of the time it is the mafia operating behind them. The begger mafia is one of the biggest in India and it operates behind these people. You are not from here so all this might make you little sad but its ok. When you cant do anything then there is no point getting sad on all this. The more you give the more they ask. They will continue asking whether its you or me. Nothing change the fact and nothing will ever be changed. Things everyday increasing and will turn more and more bad only.

I wish you luck in Indian Journey and would be a pleasure to be of any use in any way to and your husband and your husbands.

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Kim April 10, 2013 at 7:14 am

Bhanu, thanks for commenting. It is nice to hear from the perspective of an Indian. It’s terrible about the mafia and begging rings. I’d love to know- you think there is nothing to be done about it?

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KSingh April 15, 2013 at 8:37 am

An insightful post indeed.

However I would just like to point out that eradicating poverty is not going to happen in India. It is a painfully slow process, but just because you don’t see the immediate affects on a superficial level doesn’t mean things aren’t improving, this is an unfair charge to level at India.

Equating India to Africa or even other nations in S.Asia is unfair.

In fact the Indian govt is doing a hell of a lot to reduce poverty in its country. The Indian gov spends in excess of 100 Billion USD on poverty alleviation projects alone each year. India is only one of 2 nations on the planet that is set to meet the UN MDGs on poverty eradication targets by 2015. The Indian govt is directly lifting ~10,000,000 Indians out of absolute poverty every year.

I don’t know if you know anything about the ongoing UIDAI/AADHAAR initiative, if you do not I strongly suggest you read up on this revolutionary project that is one of its kind in the world and will have a dramatic effect on poverty in India.

Yes it is a painstakingly slow process, but things ARE being done in a BIG way and I feel I have to put this out there. Far too many people fall into the trap of thinking that the way things are today is the way things have always be and will always be. In fact neither of these assumptions is correct. Poverty was unheard of in India prior to the 1850s, after the British left in 1947 poverty levels were as high as 70-80% of the entire Indian population. From 1947 to the early 2000s India was in a dire position economically and thus not in any real position to do much about poverty, since then as India has flourished economically the war on poverty has begun in earnest in India.

Poverty, I am very confident, will be brought down to acceptable levels (not the most PC term but in the West it is considered ~5% poverty is “acceptable”) in our lifetimes (for those under 30 that is).

Thanks for your time.

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Kim April 16, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Thanks for your comment. It’s true, most of us traveling to India do not know what is going on behind the scenes to end poverty. I definitely did not mean to imply that nothing was being done (I did not imply this) but simply was asking the question of how to deal with individuals who ask for help. It is such a big problem, what are the small answers? I think most of us traveling to India want to help where we can in some small way, not hurt.

Thanks for all of your information and I will certainly read move about the issue.

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nomenclator April 23, 2013 at 12:30 am

When I worked as taxi driver in the United States, the taxi stands where I waited between trips attracted a lot of homeless people. Saying no to their requests for money was an easy choice for me, because I did not earn enough to pay my own bills for shelter and food. However I was able to offer things like letting someone sit in the car on really cold nights, or giving someone a free ride if I their destination was on the way to where I was dispatched to do a pickup. This gave me time to get to talk with them and get to know them a little.

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Kim April 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm

That is a wonderful example of how we can and should treat everyone like the humans they are. Thank you for doing that and for sharing.

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Vinoo September 9, 2013 at 9:48 am

People you have to turn a blind eye on this begging nonsense India is swimming in wealth but it does not go to the grass root level no one can do anything about this except the Indian government they need to buck up .

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Co September 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm

I was just in India for 6 months, half of which I was volunteering with an NGO in Gujarat, serving women and children in the slums. Even after all that time there, I still don’t have an answer to this, because at the end of the day, your heart hurts and you start to turn a blind eye in defense. Your response to this, Kim, was the most honest and honorable I’ve ever come across:

“The only thing that I know for sure, the only thing that I am certain is right, is to approach everyone with love. I look everyone in the eye, even as I tell them no. I keep my voice soft. I want them to know: I respect you. I honor you. You are alive like me.”

Thank you for sharing this and reminding all of us that we are all the same – we’re all human and all deserving of love and that connection. What I learned from my time in India is it’s not about what we do, but how we do it. Even something as simple as saying “no” can be done with a heartfelt intention.

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AK October 14, 2013 at 10:07 am

I have lived in the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco for many years. This is a prime stop for traveler kids.

The youngsters on Haight Street are very different from the persons who beg downtown. The downtown beggars are older, many are elderly and mentally ill.

The Haight Street traveler kids have the alertness to live and travel in groups, find resources to obtain dogs, camping equipment, skateboards, bicycles, hulua hoops, patchwork clothing purchased off the rack, dreadlock hairdos and tattoos. Many have phones. Ive seen a few with laptops.

In addition, the Haight has many social services: Free Clinic, Homeless Youth Alliance drop in center, and the public library affords plenty of outlets for recharging electrical equipment.

Many hold signs importuning money for marijuana and beer. One man who was beautifully dressed and coiffed had the nerve to ask me for vegan food. He was better dressed in all regards than I was.

These persons seem different in terms of attittude resources and options, from the beggars in India and Cambodia.

What is sad is that many San Franciscans -myself and other – feel worn down by the grind of ignoring this teen and young-adult insouciance. My father was a war refugee and starved. Begging and poverty were terrifying realities for him, not a play-party.

And it isnt a play party when ones own parents or a crime ring shove one into it, either.

I salute people who have what it takes to face India. I find it difficult enough to deal with my own emotions here in San Fran when faced by people who smirk and treat pandhandling as a ‘fun’ thing to do.

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Taurus February 22, 2014 at 9:53 am

I m an Indian and i too often come across such situations.I think beggars in India are so common like that of birds.I generally donate to kids, but many i times i observed that they refuse to take food or cloths!!!!
No one wants to beg for money! I dont noe y they dont accept food.But according to me a person should not fall at any situation,he should always try to work and earn! The greatest reason I discourage donating to beggars!Whatever happens,happens for good! :D

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Kim February 27, 2014 at 6:02 am

Thanks for your opinion Taurus. It is hard especially with the children, but I have heard (many times) never to give to children. Any way, it is hard to turn your back on someone in need. I’m not sure anyone knows the answer.

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Tendai April 22, 2014 at 1:53 pm

I absolutely love this paragraph.

It is difficult for me to describe India in words. India is raw. India is hard. India is rubble and odor and so much dirt. India is uncomfortable. India is beautiful. India is the only place that I have ever traveled that I have not had to sweet-talk out of her clothes. India answers the door naked.

I am currently studying in india and i see these kids and women everyday, i have resorted to ignoring them all.

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Kim April 23, 2014 at 6:28 am

Hi Tendai, it’s so hard to figure out what to do. It’s a problem that is in your face all the time in India.

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Neelam Gahlyan November 13, 2014 at 3:15 am

Im from India and I still dont have answer to that question. All they want is money, they are not hungry. In once tried giving away the food I was having, they threw it away right infront of my eyes. Once I gave money to a kid and when I turned my back that same kid snatched ice-cream from my hand.
You can never find out who is needy and where you should think of giving away money.
That is why whenever I think of charity, I do/buy stuff for dogs.
It feels good

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