Sunday, March 08, 2009


As usual, this is a bit of a free-write, so please forgive the wandering nature of the post. Trina is on skype with her parents too, so it's hard to hear myself think...

There is a lot of poverty in Kolkata, which is of course well known. We aren't in a slum, so I don't think we have seen the worst of it. But we have seen the worst of the begging, we are told. It is clustered most in the areas where white people visit. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of well-to-do Indians here. There are. But the beggars don't really bother with them, for the most part. The Indians know about the schemes.

Everything we read, everything, is pretty clear. Don't give to the beggars. There are certainly some who are legitimately down and out. But for the most part, this is a big, mobster like industry, fed by well meaning but naive white people.

The first thing we were told at the Mother House is please, please please, do not give to beggars. The beggars around the mother house were particularly wily. We spoke to a woman last night who was taken in by a little girl that had come after us as well. "Please, please, please, just buy me something to eat...I'd like milk." All the sudden, three ladies show up and they are all asking her to buy them expensive powdered milk (these people are obviously well nourished, beautiful people, actually). It's well known that they just turn around and resell these items for a profit.

Clever yes. Helpful, no. The Mother House implores you--the NGO's all agree, it is said, you undo their work when you do this. The NGO's routinely offer these people education, opportunity, etc. The beggars consistently refuse--we make too much money begging. Many of them are bussed in from the suburbs, or are practically owned by a sort of mob who take most all the money anyway.

Basically, although the social safety net in India is paltry, there are a lot of resources available to these people, but their cycle of poverty is reinforced by unsuspecting and well meaning tourists.

This is obviously a little hard, as you have mostly ladies with babies and little kids begging (and/or grabbing at your pockets). Many well meaning travelers think they should hug on the kids--they figure they don't get enough love (and this is encouraged in the supervised confines of the charity homes). They figure, maybe these people are "untouchables", and what they really need is touch and love.

But, this is heavily discouraged by the missionaries of charity. Child trafficking is big business around here, and this teaches children that there is a relationship between touch and usually money or candy. It is considered a direct way to pave the way to child sexual exploitation.

It seems like there are no right answers. We were speaking to the gal that got suckered by the powdered milk scam last night. I was saying how I really struggle with only one group of beggars, the severely handicapped. I figure if you are limbless, you have very few alternatives.

She had been duped by the little girl, but then she spoke up on her own expertise. She has worked with severely handicapped people for years, and she said this assumption strips them of their dignity. She then named many things such a person can do. Even in Kolkata, some of these could be live options...

I continue to be shocked at my own and others' naivete. I am glad we have a chance to contribute. Even though we've been encouraged that NOT supporting begging is a very good thing, it would be nice to actually do something for someone in need.

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