Saturday, September 20, 2014

To Give or Not To Give

Slums make up 47% of Mumbai so it's impossible not to witness scenes of poverty wherever you venture. How to "fix" India is a favorite discussion topic but that's really all talk - no action. At some point during your week or your day, you will get a knock on your car window and you'll have to decide what to do about it.

Beggars, in all their variety, try to earn a living by asking for money from people in cars. It's always at the busiest intersections where the signal lights are long. The disabled, the mother's with babies, the "holy" men, and the children forge through the congested traffic tapping on car windows with empty milk bottles or canes, needing very little help to appear pitiful. Chopped off limbs or dirty bandages will be waved in your direction and babies will be smacked to produce compelling tears.

Picture taking is a sure invitation and all the beggars will gather at your window demanding money for the picture you just took. If you are white, your skin color declares your relative wealth and they never leave the window until the signal forces them away. This undeterred women was trying to convince the bus driver and all his passengers to give her rupees.

The beggars live on the pavement and set up veritable villages under the city overpasses creating bottlenecks and opportunities.

It's usually the children who are sent out to navigate unfriendly traffic and customers while the women socialize and tend the plethora of small babies. We've been told many times that the mafia is behind this scheme and that the beggars themselves keep very little of what they make. Still, the face pressed against your window is a real person. 

What do you do while your driver locks the doors? Do you pretend you don't see? That's the most common response. Do you act like you're sleeping? That's not unusual. Some favor handing out water bottles or chocolates instead of money. It lessens the guilt but comes with its own problems of crowd attraction and carrying enough supplies. Signs posted around parks order you not to give to or encourage begging. Begging is a problem all over the city. Occasionally I've seen people crack their windows or lean out of a bus to give a few rupees to a disfigured beggar but not to any others. There are rumors that people have been purposefully maimed in order to make a profit begging.

As I witness another roadside camp being set up and children pushed into a life that is not their choice, I force myself to look them in the eye when they knock. I don't know what else to do or how to "fix" this situation - but I know I don't want to encourage it. I also know that when I sadly but firmly shake my head no, I want to convey that's it's the principle, not the person I'm saying no to.

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