The Complexities of Handing out Money in India
One moment I was alone in the dust; the next, surrounded.
Without warning they began shifting on the ground around me like the shadows of predatory birds, emerging from clefts of the crumbly edifices they called home. Quiet, agile, they closed in until they brushed my legs, pulled at my arms. There was no escape.
Gripping the rupee notes into a crumple of promise, I looked at the group of Rajasthani village kids, then to my boyfriend – filming it all, bewildered – and back to the kids. They stared back, sandy-lashed, as if to loosen my grip with the sheer force of their gaze.
It was egg-frying midday in a nameless village compound on the edge of North India’s Thar Desert – stretching west towards Pakistan from Jaisalmer – where we stopped during our three-day camel safari.
While our guide collected supplies, three local children under 10 approached us bashfully and motioned for gifts. Without chocolate, I offered the sparkly keychain on my bag; in response to their ensuing mystification, I handed each a five-rupee ($0.10 AUD) coin.
This innocent ‘charity’ sent some 20 more village kids hurtling towards me, palms outstretched and shoving their companions. A few mothers, gums aflame with betel nut, joined in prying my hands for notes while I stood slack-jawed in the rush.
After distributing my remaining cash, we mounted the camels and left the dispersion of kids in our wake. But as the Thar’s harsh majesty ebbed and flowed in the dunes before us, my mind anchored back in the village: was money the right thing to give?
This isn’t the first time a traveller to India has contemplated this question. Yet the desert silence gave me a perfect setting to reflect its relation to two Westerner complexes in India, one far graver than the other (my boyfriend, having breakfasted on bhang cookies, was exploring his own complexity).
First, it’s fair to say most travellers to India crave authenticity, which exists no more vividly than within interactions with India’s people. We all want a Jamal Malik from Slumdog Millionaire, a Prabaker from Shantaram to drag us off the train and show us India’s real deal, shout us morning idly and impart philosophy bites to scribble in our new Ganesh journal.
However, as tourists, above all, we’re cogs in India’s money machine, a transient source of income. And so, more often than not, whichever character blesses you at the holy lake, shows you the best chai stand or poses for your photos will request a tip, albeit a small one.
But even the small can be big enough to bruise a traveller’s ego. Just when you thought the interaction was genuine – enlightening even – some guileless businessman hands you the bill. This is certainly not everyone’s objective, but it’s common enough to enter traveller-warning lists.
Returning to the village, the tipping (or unexpected request for money) was half my disillusion – I’d hoped that the interest was mutual, that the villagers sought as much insight into my life as I had into theirs, that they’d ignore the luminescent dollar sign over my head.
The other half of my disillusion, and the second Westerner complex in India, centred on the money itself. Does free cash really help its recipients?
According to The World Bank, 21.2 per cent of India’s 2011 population lived below the poverty line, the majority of those residing in rural areas like this village in Rajasthan, where illiteracy is high and access to social and health care is limited.
So, my first impression among the villagers was yes, totally. Their windowless, sundrenched houses were modest; their possessions few. The kids traversed the rocky ground barefoot, and there was nary a book or swing set in sight. Surely a few rupees could serve their pocket money.
But, as I’ve since learnt, our well-intentioned rupees don’t translate to schoolbooks; they only incentivise parents from keeping kids out of class. The dozens more safaris passing through that week were opportunities for parents to send the children to collect cash – not keychains – from tourists.
It’s a sad fact that most of the 60,000 children who go missing in India each year support the organised begging industry, forced to earn money for human trafficking cartels, and often maimed to generate more sympathy. Other children are sold as domestic, industrial or sex slaves.
And this is only getting worse: the number of children who went missing and remain untraced in India increased by around 84 per cent between 2013 and 2015.
Though this situation differs from those of the Rajasthani village kids, the sympathetic tourist dollar once again plays a part in the cycle of poverty, dependency and suffering that entraps these children.
Nor do small rupee handouts help anyone from an economist’s perspective. American economics author Tyler Cowen once described begging on Kolkata’s streets as “overcrowded occupation subject to congestion”.
In other words, a higher amount of beggars on the street drives down the financial value of begging; there are too few tourist rupees for too many pockets. Giving to beggars entices more people away from legitimate jobs into uncertainty, where the earnings are already stretched.
You can’t give to everyone, so how does the tourist discern who’s most in need? Is it better to spread the rupees thin over a crowd, or hand them all to the lucky one?
Furthermore, UNICEF points out two categories of street children: those ‘on the street’ earning money for their parents, and those ‘of the street’ without families, homes or emotional support. It can be impossible to make this judgment in a matter of seconds.
Such inequity was all too present in the village, where I didn’t have enough money for everyone and couldn’t tell whom most needed it. When I caught the eyes of those who missed out, swimming with dejection, I wanted to put my head under my camel’s foot.
While I didn’t know then, others argue that dolling out cash to minors can undermine their respect for parents who aren’t in the position to give them anything, which can erode the social cohesion within families and communities.
Worse still, according to Save the Children India, some parents can maintain comfortable lifestyles by pushing their own children into begging. The organisation cites reports from the Child Welfare Commission of parents retrieving children from shelters and returning them to the street to work.
At the end of the safari, crackled as an autumn leaf and studded with desert spurs, questions around rupee handouts still swirled in my head. Is pride getting in the way of sharing a few rupees with strangers? Is giving cash to beggars a positive contribution in any case?
While I’ll leave you to navigate the former, further research and reflection has told me giving cash to beggars is, for the most part, not the right thing to do. Next time I feel like contributing, I’ll donate my time or money to a reputable non-profit organisation that promotes education or helps street beggars.
Cover by IAmNotUnique
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Lizzy is a freelance writer on a year-long trip from Bali to Iran. As a graduate of journalism and Spanish, she’s interested in language and culture, and dreams of being a foreign correspondent.