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Is There A Right Way To Respond To Begging?

Mumbai, a city of over eighteen million people, is home to an estimated 300,000 ‘beggars’, people who survive by asking others for money or food in public spaces. Many are children, female or the elderly. A large number are physically maimed. From the bona fide Mumbaikar to the tourist in India for the first time, having to come face to face with this side of the city on a daily basis can, and should, be a cause of great distress, concern and reflection.

When discussing people who beg in Mumbai, first and foremost, it is essential to recognize their humanity. We are not talking about a problem like pollution or traffic. We are not talking about mere numbers or statistics. We are talking about people.All that separates their situation from ours own is the lottery of birth, and we must constantly remind ourselves of this.

There is no right way, just a varying degree of wrong ones

But what is the best response to someone begging for money on street? We have lived in Mumbai for more than two years now and have been thinking about and discussing this topic throughout our stay. We’ve drawn few conclusions other than that there is no “right way”, just varying degrees of wrong ones. That said, here are a few things to think about as you determine how you personally will respond when you are in Mumbai.

Reasons to consider not giving

Giving can feel good: you are doing a good deed and  you are helping, so why not give? This is most likely also the quickest, easiest and most effective way to alleviate the guilt and intensity of the situation. But there are several reasons to reconsider giving to people who beg in this way:

  • It creates dependency. By giving, you are reinforcing the behaviour. This makes begging a viable profession and can mean children are kept out of school to beg.
  • Receiving charity is much harder than giving it. Creating this dependency can also bring with it the feeling of inferiority and worthlessness. Children can grow up feeling that their only option is to continue begging.
  • It perpetuates the ‘white saviour complex’: Westerners need to be especially careful of the propagating the white savior complex. Other countries problems can be so easy to admonish and simplify and after centuries under the British Raj and caste system it’s important not to reinforce such outdated beliefs.
  • It makes begging a viable revenue stream for the mafia: Indeed they are already involved. But this point illustrates how difficult this decision is. Does the involvement of the mafia change the fundamental question we are grappling with? At the end of the day the equation is unchanged: a fellow human who has been left behind by our society is in need of help. It could even be argued that people who beg that have been co-opted by the mafia are in fact in greater need of help- they don’t even get to keep all of the money they receive.

The above arguments are why we don’t allow anything to be given out during our Educational Dharavi Slum Tour. Profits instead go to the community through our sister NGO, Reality Gives who focus on providing quality education opportunities to our communities. Those inspired by the tour to take action are encouraged to do so through an in-kind donation that can be used by participants in their programs.

The alternatives

For many, the desire to give is fuelled by a complex sense of guilt and the blatant injustice of the situation. Most importantly, we see in front of us a fellow human in need of help. It’s clear that there are a number of reasons to stop giving handouts on the street. But what are the alternatives? And are they any better?

  • Support a local NGO: A more structured and strategic way to address the issue of begging can be to support a local NGO. It also allows you to give more anonymously and altruistically. The downside? This does not address the immediate need of the human being in front of you. It does not alleviate their suffering and choosing an effective NGO can require extensive research (something we hope to consider in a future blog post).
  • Give in-kind: Give clothes, give restaurant leftovers, give fruit or multivitamins (don’t give sweets – whilst it might address your desire to give and delight the children you give them to – it also rots their teeth). Giving something other than money can circumvent the issue of money not going to the person you are trying to help. That said, it is  also important to consider whether or not what you give is culturally appropriate. If the restaurant leftovers are in accordance with the person’s religion. If  the clothes are fit for purpose and appropriate. And finally, we must again consider if we’re still creating dependency and reinforcing a sense of inferiority.
  • Don’t give: Many people don’t give. They comfort themselves with speculation that the person begging is there as a result of bad choices they have made, drug dependency, because they are too lazy to work for a living or that they are ‘professionals’ (many a Mumbaikar has heard tell of elderly beggars found dead with tens of thousands of rupees strapped to their body). The downside? Whilst a wonderful way to absolve ourselves of any kind of guilt, these stories are almost always not true!

To conclude (if doing so is even possible), we must not forget the guilt and shame evoked within us when we are confronted with the inequality and unfairness of society. We must acknowledge the common humanity that binds us, and treat others with humility and compassion. And above all, we must recognise, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly”. At Reality Gives, we believe that where someone starts in life should not determine where they finish. It is up to all of us to join together in working towards a more equitable future. In the words of Edmund Burke “nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”. We are not powerless. Just because we cannot do everything should not stop us from doing something, in whatever way we are most comfortable with.