Benefit of All My Bothers and Sisters Who Survive by Begging:
Volunteering in Calcutta, India, Part 3
By Paul Sinclair (One World One People) 31/10/00
G'Day all you champions; how are we all? Well, despite the
week just gone having more dramas than a week of Neighbours
episodes, I have to say it's been disappointing.
brothers from a Calcutta slum
I have had a lot less work to do at the Train Station and it's not
because all my poor brothers and sisters have gotten better it's because
I'm not finding them. Winter came swiftly to Calcutta this week with
sudden cold snaps like 16 degrees Celsius over-night (freezing for
Bengalis). A lot of my would-be patients have jumped on trains and
headed south for warmer weather. I got some compensation though, thanks
to a couple of days of rainy weather. When it rains a lot of destitute
people who have moved out of the station return for shelter.
Every day we have been taking a person to Kalighat (Mother Teresa's
home for the Destitute and Dying) but only one of them is still with
us. Fortunately, they have all made it to Kalighat alive (a miracle
in itself) and been cleaned, dressed in clean clothes and cared for,
before they, "Went to God," as the Sisters say. I get a
lot of comfort in knowing they passed with dignity, respect and surrounded
by love instead of on their own in the most dreadful conditions and
This week I wouldn't know where to begin on relating my individual
experiences. So I think I will ask you all to stand back as I throw
a stick of dynamite into the great Indian cave of knowledge and see
what interesting facts come flying out as we tackle head-on the world-wide
problem of begging and beggars!
India, and especially Calcutta, is full of beggars so I often spend
time with them and befriend them. I have learnt a lot from this, so
I will attempt to share what I have learnt with all of you. When a
person becomes a beggar they begin on a downward spiral which causes
them to lose their self-respect and their dignity. Many of them forget
they are even human beings and consider themselves less than animals.
Yet the fact remains that the poorest of the poor can't eat dirt,
so what do we do?
About the worst thing you can ever do is to give them money. The Great
Gandhi never gave them money nor did the Great Mother Teresa. The
reasons for this are numerous, but mostly relate to the behind the
scenes social problems that giving money creates. One of the most
common problems is with drugs. The worst situation I have ever seen
was in Manilla in the Philippines where the street children were addicted
to the codeine in cough-mixture. Tourists used to give them money
thinking they were helping to feed them when in fact they were helping
to kill them. Here in Calcutta drugs are also a real problem.
Another problem is organised crime and professional beggars. All day
long in the tourist areas there are women, some well dressed and clean,
begging for money to feed their babies. If you don't give them any
they ask you to buy powered milk for the child and direct you to the
closest shop. After you hand over the 80 rupees the women take the
milk powder and as soon as you are out of sight she gives it back
to the shopkeeper. He or she keeps 50 rupees and the women gets 30.
Also, the babies never seem to grow up. This is because the women
hire their babies from the local mafia. In a lot of places where there
is poverty, the women deliberately and continually have children if
it helps them with their begging.
In India, the local mafia will sometimes take street children off
the street, remove their limbs and / or poke their eyes out and put
them back on the street with a begging bowl. After a person puts money
in the bowl and departs the scene the watching Mafia swiftly empty
the bowl. If no-one were to put money in the bowl then the mafia would
abandon the activity as it would not be viable. If, however, people
put lots of money in the bowl the mafia's insatiable greed is further
aroused and they may think of getting more children.
Another way giving money to beggars can destroy lives is with child
beggars. When I was in Katmandu, I had a young boy come up to me.
He could speak perfect English and claimed to know all the capital
cities of all the countries. I put him to the test and found him well
and truly up to it. He then gave me a pitiful story of how he needed
to get money to feed his younger brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately in Katmandu the children there, as in many places in
the world, see foreigners (particularly Westerners) as human bank
machines. Most foreigners don't help the situation because that's
exactly how they behave. I took one look at this well dressed, clean,
healthy, young bloke and remembering all the signs the Government
had posted around Katmandu in English, such as 'Education in Nepal
is compulsory' and ' A child employed is a future destroyed' said
to him, 'If you continue to beg, one day you will forget you are a
person. Go to school, put your intelligence to good use and build
a future for yourself'. He shamefully agreed with me, but I know that
while it is so easy for him and other youngsters to get money by begging
off foreigners he will have a strong incentive not to go to school.
After all, what kiddie wants to go to school when they can walk up
to a foreigner, ask for money and get it, and then go have fun.
In Tibet I was lucky enough to talk with travellers who had entered
Tibet when it was first opened up to foreigners a few years ago. They
spoke of travelling through the remote areas and encountering small
groups of proud, independent, herders and nomads. A few years on,
these same people have now been reduced to beggars. As foreigners
approach, their children come running up to the vehicles with hands
out asking for money, pens, sweets and all manner of other things.
I have to wonder if these children will grow up with these bad habits
and one day leave their traditional life-styles to opt for an easier,
more exciting life by trying their luck putting their hands out in
the big cities. It may make a person feel good to give to the local
people in materially poor countries, but the cost that they truly
exact on them is great.
So, what can we do to help beggars? The best thing you can do is to
give of yourself. Talk to them, smile at them and treat them respectfully.
If it is clear the person is struggling to feed themselves, (you can
tell by their age, general health and condition) then give them food.
Just make sure that the food is not in a form that can be resold.
Even if they can't resell it themselves, if it can be resold there
is the danger that someone else will take it from them and sell it
— benefiting no-one.
Similarly if a person doesn't have any clothes then clothe them
— just don't give them expensive clothes that most likely
will get stolen. Finally, if it is possible find them a job. The great
Gandhi was always trying to do this. In fact, he didn't care if they
were only working in return for food. It was a step in the right direction
towards them regaining their self-respect and dignity.
That's all for this week champions.
Other articles in the series:
you are interested in volunteering in Calcutta or other homes run
by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity please visit their official
website for volunteers.
Further information can be found in 'The
Lonely Planet Guide to India'
chapter on Kolkata.
along side the Sisters in Kalighat