For the 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.

Two 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 surroundings.

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.

Bye now.

Click here to view images from Calcutta

Other articles in the series:

Volunteering for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to serve the Poorest
of the Poor in Calcutta, India Part 1, 16 October 2000
Volunteering for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to serve the Poorest of the Poor
in Calcutta, India Part 2, 23 October 2000
Volunteering in Calcutta India, Part 4 World Poverty and the Final Solution,
10 November 2000

If 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.

Volunteers working along side the Sisters in Kalighat

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© One World One People, 24 January 2002
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