My thinking on how to respond to street people has evolved from what it was when I first started traveling in the Subcontinent. Back then, when needy people approached me, I would usually fish around in my pockets, pass them whatever spare change came readily to hand, and then continue on my way. One day a small child stepped up to me as I was wandering around looking for a hotel near the train station in Tiruchirappalli, a temple town in Tamil Nadu. She asked me for ‘one rupee’, a very common way of requesting alms in India. I didn’t have any coins just then, so I handed her a small bill or two and walked on to the hotel. I checked in, left my bag in the room, and went out to explore.
A short while later, I came across the same girl, standing in front of a street stall buying a big handful of cheap sweets with the money I had just given her. I paused there for a moment, digesting my mistake. Many poor children like this probably don’t have access to dentists. The last thing someone like her needs is a bag of candy. I had meant to be helpful, but it was clear that I was actually promoting something rather unhealthy. From then on, I stopped giving street children money. Now, when children come up to me, I gently walk them over to the nearest fruit vendor, and give them a kilo or two of apples or tangerines instead.
Nevertheless, I still have some ‘misgivings’ with this, so to speak. It is not just dental health that can be undermined by this sort of well-intended giving. It is also possible to sow false expectations like this as well. You are not really doing these children any favors if you encourage them to think that there is a viable future in asking tourists for money on the street. One time I had arranged to meet a traveling companion in front of a nearby cinema. I was sitting there on a low wall waiting for her to appear when a small girl about eight years old came and sat down near me on the sidewalk next to the cinema gate. She placed a quart sized yogurt container gleaned from the trash in front of her and waited.
Her timing was perfect. About a minute or two later, the film in progress inside ended, the cinema doors opened, and the movie audience streamed past her on to the street. Whereupon she put her hands together in a standard Indian gesture of supplication, and started up a loud, pitiful chant imploring the emerging filmgoers for mercy:
“Baba! …… ay, Baba!”
And it really worked. Many of these people tossed small coins into her container as they passed. A short bit later, the cinema was empty and the crowd was gone, but her tub was now quite full. There must have been a least two inches of coins in it. Not a huge amount of course, but probably enough for her family to buy food for the evening meal. In all of ten minutes.
However, this result came about largely because she was eight years old. I am pretty sure that if she tried this when she was thirty-eight years old, the result would not be anywhere near as productive. And that’s the problem: This sort of begging might work when you are a small child; it turns into something very different when you become an adult….