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Beggars belief

This is related to a lot of what I’ve seen in recent weeks while travelling around India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In a word: poverty. And to expand on that, various peoples’ ways of dealing with it.

Sri Lanka, to be honest, wasn’t so bad. There were some beggars around, but they were few and far between. I’d say no more, possibly less, than you’d see in an average day in an average British city.

India, however, is swarming with them. And they’re tenacious. You can’t walk around Mumbai, for instance, without having some young girl with a baby in her arms poking you and asking for money or food for the baby. Frankly, I’d rather hand her a load of condoms and a lecture on birth control. At least they’re more direct in India. Back in the UK the usual procedure is to get pregnant so you can claim more income support and get up the ladder for free housing. In India it’s simply “I have a baby – give me money”. One girl in Bangalore simply stood in front of me saying “babybabybabaybabybaby…”

Bangledesh seems outwardly to be more affluent, at least insofar as there are less beggars on the street than in India. Also, the roads are better, power supplies seem more reliable and so on. There are more better-dressed people on the streets. Whether it’s all image or what, I don’t know. Still, the beggars are tenacious. They won’t take “no” from a tourist at all. You get looks of disbelief, disdain and disgust if you refuse them money. Worse is if you give them food and they look at you as if you’re insane. Which is when you take it back off them.

My problem is that I can’t help everyone. So instead I choose to help no-one. I don’t know if this is the right choice, but it’s the one I’ve gone for. If I happen to have, say, a half-eaten packet of crisps on me when a small child asks for them then fine. If it gets me a smile then it’s worth it. But I just won’t hand money over. Ever.

Trust me, seeing some of these people who are asking makes it difficult. They obviously live in utter poverty. They’re dirty, they look unhealthy, a huge number are crippled or disabled, even many of the rickshaw-wallahs can’t read. But in Bangladesh, a mainly Muslim society, they care for their own. These people get fed by others who do have money. Both in India and Bangledesh you see locals handing over coins regularly to these folk – and that’s heartening.

But does it excuse me from not handing over my own money?

I suppose I can look at it one way. I’ve bought food and paid for accommodation in places where I’ve seen the staff handing money over to beggars. So I suppose it’s a “trickle-down” thing. Or am I just trying to make excuses up for my lack of generosity?

On the flip side, we were talking to Caroline – another British traveller – on the train from Varanasi last week. She’d had words with a flower seller by the waterfront who’d tried to charge her 10Rp for flowers she knew were only worth 5Rp. The conversation went along the lines of:

“Why is this 10 Rupees?”

“Because you have more money.”

“Why do you think I have more money?”

“Because you’re white.”

It took a little more wheedling to get it out of the guy, but that was the answer. If you’re in India and you’re white then you’re richer than a local.

Last time I looked, the guy who owns Kingfisher Airlines (and Kingfisher Beer and several other industries) is Indian. And he’s got a hell of a lot more money than I have.

Basically, I do want to help some of these people. Some can get knotted – they’re professional beggers. I have sympathy for those in a situation that’s not of their own making and which they simply can’t get out of. But I have no time whatsoever for people who won’t help themselves. That’s why I’m happy to spend time and effort with the kids from Blue Dragon or similar charities. They’re all there because they want to improve themselves, to get out of a hole that fate has dumped them into.

But how do you pick who to help and who not? As it stands, my aid is going to have to be to spend my tourist dollar in these countries and let it filter down to those who need it. I’m glad to see that, in certain areas, it does seem to happen.

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