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Fang Shi Han reflects on her experience in India.

The child beggars of India

Fang Shi Han / India

It is said that beggars are the happiest of people. They live on a day-to-day basis without worries, hopes, pride or dreams. Beggars feel no shame. They are willing to do whatever it takes to get the next bottle of alcohol, the next sweet, or the next plate of food. As a prominent indicator of social inequality, beggars cluster in urban areas, preying on well-minded travellers in addition to milking the charity of both blue and white-collar workers.

Begging in the Rural & Urban areas

Rural poverty is driven mostly by the farmers' dependency on the monsoon cycle. Crops only grow when there is moderate rain – too much causes floods, too little causes droughts. One cannot control the weather. There is little possibility in planning ahead.

When food is scarce in the dry season, agricultural workers are forced to seek other means of income. Larger families are compelled to sell one child to feed the rest. In places where child marriage is prevalent, daughters may be married off to extract a dowry and to lessen the burden on family finances. In the worst cases, the rural poor resorts to begging.

The asking rate of each beggar increases with the level of urbanisation. The minimum rate in rural Koppal is  2 rupees while the minimum rate in urban Mumbai is 10 rupees. In Bangalore, child beggars flit from vehicle to vehicle at each junction during traffic jams. They never stop at one target for long. With such a high volume of targets, the chances of scoring a ‘hit’ are massively higher than the rural areas. These children earn at least 10 rupees per 100 vehicles, and 300 rupees per day.

Like most professions, the begging industry has a tendency to establish collective behaviour. Begging syndicates are not unknown in India and it was highly improbable that child beggars  established working patterns, ‘sales strategies’ and respective territories independently.

The begging profession also works on concepts of buying and selling – it regards sympathy as a market to be exploited. Yet this human sense of ‘heart’ merely encourages the growth of the begging business, by proving that there is profit to be made. Each rupee given is a transaction for the sale of poverty.

The children get just enough to feed themselves while the leaders of the syndicates keep the rest. Furthermore, after reaching the age of physical maturity, the girls are then sold off into the flesh trade while the boys become slaves or labourers. It is difficult to find a girl or boy between 13 to 16 begging along the streets when their value lies elsewhere.

In Mumbai, each child beggar pays 50 rupees per day as a ‘protection fee’ to syndicates or corrupt policemen, just to be able to beg on the streets. One may even consider this deal as rental space for a shop front. The child beggars sell images of destitution and ‘customers’, willingly or otherwise, participate in this scheme through a constant supply of sympathy cash.

Marketing tactics include sharp jabs at your arm, hoarse voices and feisty demands of equal treatment (“if the other beggar got 10 rupees I must have 10 rupees too!”). These tactics are practised to perfection as each beggar competes to incite guilt and shame. The targets part with a small amount of cash to ease the hidden fear that the genetic lottery could have banished anyone to that precise state of impoverishment.

This temporary paralysis incites a blinding sense of fault. Furthermore, when this immediate guilt can conveniently be erased with a mere parting of spare change, the long-term systemic effects of each individual action are forgotten. The system cannot be seen, or felt until one is bombarded with heart-wrenching images from NGO posters or movies like Slumdog Millionaire.

The Systemic Effects

Organised crime targeting children, combined with the indifference of the police, result in children becoming victims of organ trade, flesh trade, child trafficking, forced begging and child labour. According to The Week (“Where are our kids?” July 19th, 2009), one child goes missing every hour in Delhi while the police avoids accountability by registering only 20% of missing cases. Most of the missing children are from poor families without financial resources to follow-up on the cases.

India's image as a nation of poverty and endemic corruption is not new. UNICEF consistently reports that more than 230 million people in India are undernourished – the highest in the world. Malnutrition accounts for nearly 50% of child death in India and more than 70% of children under 5 are anaemic.

However, NGOs have collectively bombard the developed world with images of starving Indian children in the hope of securing funds. The Indian government accused ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) of portraying India in a falsely unfavourable light internationally to obtain funding for its midday-school meal scheme. A secondary charge alleges that ISKON was misappropriating these funds to its own real estate investments.

Slum tours have also become in-vogue. Rates for touring Mumbai slums range from US$10 for 2.5 hour tour to US$135 for a 9 hour tour. Some agencies even offer a 1-night stay with a slum family at a rate of US$160. Tourists enthusiastically lap up ‘poorism’ expecting to experience about ‘real poverty’ in the ‘unseen world’. These tour agencies claim to channel the profits (after tax) to rehabilitating the slum dwellers or educating the slum children.

NGOs also sell volunteering programs like a tour package. One can ‘do good’ and have fun at the same time, ‘only’ at a low cost of US$450. However, the lack of accountability shrouds this industry with scepticism. In Bangalore alone, 750 out of 1000 registered NGOs have been ‘blacklisted’ by the government. Selling India’s poverty abroad, an up-scaled version of the beggar children, is nothing new.

The deputy director of The Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) also testified that from his experience in conducting forums for NGOs, many of these organisations have a vested interest in sensationalising events to acquire financial support. For instance, some Christian groups amplify news of a Christian man being beaten up in the local paper, or on the internet, to ensure a temporary stream of resources from Christians in India or overseas.

Can there be a solution?

Though begging is technically against the Constitution (the largest in the world), like most other laws in India, this rule cannot be implemented in full force. How does one penalise a beggar for begging when jail is hardly seen as a punishment? How does one enforce societal discipline with a fine when the offender has nothing to begin with?

Every do-gooder in the world wants to save the poor, help the destitute, heal the sick and fix the system. Yet every solution requires a problem. While 10 rupees may provide one meal for a child beggar, eradicating organised begging syndicates and corruption involves a deeper re-thinking of the problem. Another social worker, having worked for various NGOs for 7 years, displays almost an air of resignation.

“Corruption will always be there. We cannot fix it. What we can do is work at the grassroots level, to empower the poor one village at a time. There are many other NGOs doing good work for the people. There are also many unethical NGOs in India taking funding away from the real projects. But what is the point about talking about things you cannot do anything about? What matters are the people whom we help.”

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