The Challenge of Beggars in India

One of the most difficult obstacles any westerner will face in India is beggars. Before going any further, my best advice is, know the facts about begging, and then decide how you want to handle it.

Begging is a complicated situation. A google search for “beggars in India” leads to a wealth of articles on the topic. I particularly liked this piece from Go India, but I recommend you do your own advance research. 

Here are some basic things to know:

Despite appearances, not all beggars are poor. Some own expensive mobile phones, jewelry, even homes and cars. For them, begging is a lucrative job. I am personally aware of beggars in my Indian hometown whose daily income is more than double my daily budget.

Charities exist to help the poor. In my town, one charity offers free food, shelter, clothing and an education for the children. The local beggar camps refused to stay there unless they were paid 5000 rupees per month (an estimated $100 USD), to cover the income they would lose.

There are religious traditions of begging. A sadhu or Buddhist monk who has renounced worldly concerns must rely on the community for all of his basic needs. For the most part, it is safe to give small amounts to these men. 
Sadhus at Jagdish Mandir Hindu Temple in Udaipur, Rasjathan
On some festival days, it is customary for every citizen (according to the tradition of “dana”, or generosity) who is able to give a coin to every beggar he encounters. On these dates, beggars come from all over the surrounding area to participate.
Tibetan Refugee from Kham Region Giving Coins to Indian Monks in McleodGanj, Himachal Pradesh on Saga Dawa,  Buddhism's Most Holy Day
Many beggars are organized into gangs, with a leader who instructs them where to go (based on number of tourists/highest potential for earnings). They travel between various regions of India, often seasonally. I have seen one of these gang leaders go around at the end of a day with a tally book to record how much each of his people earned.

Many adult beggars are alcoholics or drug addicts. Some men force their wives and children to beg to support these habits.

Lepers and other handicapped persons, such as the blind, frequently resort to begging. 

You will encounter disheveled women dressed in rags carrying babies. They are very persistent, will follow you in the street and may even grab your arm or clothing. In the cities, they will beat on your car windows. Be aware that, on most occasions, the babies are rented on a daily basis, because people are more likely to give to a woman with a child out of sympathy.
Women in Rags with Babies Waiting for Tourists in McleodGanj, Himachal Pradesh
The children are particularly wily. Some of them speak multiple languages and have a range of pitiful tales to tell to evoke pity. They have learned how easy it is to make a living out of making others feel sorry for them.
Young beggar in McleodGanj, Himchal Pradesh Watching a Tibetan Tradeswoman
IF you decide to give anything, give small amounts. Be aware of the value of local currency. It is not wrong to give as little as 1 rupee, and never more than 10.

Avoid giving sweets to children. Avoid buying anything which can be resold (particularly milk, rice, and beans/dhal). Do not share your meal with urchins who approach you at outdoor cafes. These acts all perpetuate the beggar culture.

Some beggars are aggressive and annoying, very impersonal, just out to work their scams and make their money. Others seem eager to interact with all who pass and show what seems to be sincere gratitude. 

As a part time India resident (16 non-consecutive months over 2 years) who has discussed the issue repeatedly with other expats and locals, it's interesting to observe the different aspects of this complex situation and how both natives and tourists cope with it.

“Experts” recommend the best way to deal with begging is to ignore it. If you are going to be in India for a long time, I do recommend you try this. While the relative poverty and illness around you is disheartening, giving handouts to everyone with a sad story does nothing to help in the long run. They advise donating to established trusted local charities rather than to individuals.

In closing, to repeat, learn as much as you can about the reality, and act in a way that you feel is most beneficial.
All images copyright Tammy Winand