Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Visiting Delhi, India? Consider Your Tolerance for Beggar Children (Including Babies)

India’s poverty is not so different from other places I’ve been like Peru, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar or Indonesia -- it’s just amplified by a few hundred million people.

India is SO much more than its poor. I partly agree with those who say movies like Slumdog Millionaire pander to Western stereotypes of India. There's a huge middle class and judging by the way they work and produce, their economy may overtake us one day. Plus, the existence of poor people in every visible direction is a constant reminder to the middle class what could happen if they fail. Maybe this is why they work so hard and have such ambition. But the extreme poor still exist here, and it's so raw and unavoidable, especially in a city where I’ve mostly taken doorless rickshaws -- the beggars come right up while you're waiting in traffic.

Everyone should experience being approached by a child beggar at least once in life. I doubt it builds character, but it’s a reminder of how much worse millions of people have it. You must face it.

Homeless beggar children act the same way in every country I’ve seen since 10 years ago in Peru. They don’t budge after you try and shoo them away -- just standing holding their hand out for money and pointing toward their mouths. Really tests the nerves and even the most callous asshole will have his heartstrings affected.

The hard part is the way they stand and stare with those eyes, and me having to repeatedly say no, then pretending to ignore the tragedy a few feet below my face. For adult beggars, at least they get the message quick and move on. Homeless children are different, and damn persistent -- like any kid who really really wants something.

At the Delhi train station platform I saw something rougher than I’d seen elsewhere. I was sitting reading a book when I felt small hands on my bald head. I figured it was a beggar child, so I glanced up to see two six-year-old girls holding their hands out for money. I tried to brush them off, but as usual, they persisted. That’s when I looked up to see that one of the girls was holding a tiny dirty baby -- maybe 10 months old -- whom they had trained to make the same hand motion toward its small mouth for food. Holy God.

If you give them money, in five minutes, you will have 10 more children asking for 10 more handouts. It’s exponential and doesn’t help anyway.

On the way back from the station at night, we passed hundreds of homeless men sleeping on the sidewalk -- so many you’d have to step over one every three feet. Life is lived a little closer to the bone over here.

I have no experience in poverty alleviation, but my trite opinion on this heavy issue is that there are at least two things that could help the poor of India: more industry and less fucking.

On the first point, simply put, I am FOR child labor and "sweat shops" in poor countries. Let me offer a photo I took during the business section of my trip to back this point. This was taken three stories up on a feed mill that was being built in rural India. You can see the young boy on the left holding a small dish used to hold concrete for his uncle or father. The boy is probably seven years old:

What is wrong with this in a country where thousands of children beg on the street and dig through filthy trash piles for recyclables? For people in the West, "child labor" is something you're supposed to be aghast at without much thought, but I wonder how many have seen the real alternatives to their perceptions of kids working. This construction site employed hundreds of poor Indians to do paid work. Granted, it's often dangerous work: for example, they use those turbans as substitutes for helmets. This is often the best option to begging on the street or train platforms in India. The choices many children have are FAR WORSE than being employed in projects like this or in some factory assembling cell phones or sneakers. This is something that the NY Times has eloquently said in the past -- and I agree 100%.

The other (less realistic) solution is for Indians to stop breeding so damn fast. In India, we were never asked, "Do you have kids?" -- always, "How many kids do you have?" Because, of course, it would be INCONCEIVABLE for a married couple not to have multiple kids.

Anyway, that's my assessment of the situation.
This kind of thing happened to me too - in a couple countries. There is no better way to put our wealthy lifestyle in perspective than some tiny baby jabbing our eyeballs with (genuine) poverty.

Ok, there are others... but still, tiny, dirty babies are rough to deal with.
Kids with harelips, kids with feet and legs blown off by landmines, or kids digging through trash piles for something to eat are the ones that get to me. I wonder - would the extra calories we Americans consume/year be enough to feed the entire beggar population of India? Some of your smart readers could probably make that calculation.
One more thing: perhaps India's License Raj period -- in which "up to 80 government agencies had to be satisfied before private companies could produce something" -- increased all these poor people. Thank god that's over, but it's gonna take a while to undo all that harm.
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Great post. Keep it up. I've been reading your blog for two years.

I absolutely agree with your "You have to see this" comments. It will change your life and make you realise how insignificant your little problems are. There are billions of people in the world living in abject poverty and I'm very happy that I'm not one of them. I saw numerous beggars in India with limbs missing. The worst had no arms OR legs and was convulsing outside Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. Utterly, utterly horrifying.

Great post.
Hey LB, Flake here - I'm reading "The Mystery of Capital" by Hernando de Soto and it is fascinating. It's basically about why third world and developing countries have been unable to turn their wealth and resources into capital - you should totally read it. xoxo

I just read the amazon review of the book. Definitely sounds worth reading. Thanks.
I came across your blog accidentally, and I have to say although your solutions aren't perfect and many may disagree, I think they are still worth taking a look at. Most American balk at "sweat shops" and I had too often wonder, our idealistic thoughts of making it "better" for kids, what other choices do they have. Ideally children shouldn't work, providing that they live in a country with parents that can provide, but the alternative for most of these kids are to beg and perhaps even child prostitution, etc. So, to pick the lesser of evils, I would rather see children work and perhaps attain some skills they can utilize as they get older than be subjected to a life of begging and even child prostitution any day.
Just got back from two weeks in India. Despite having travelled to many poor countries, I was surprised by the vast number of liars and thieves. Really felt it was a pretty big hole that I wouldn't visit again, and that was despite seeing most of the best parts of Rajastan, and Taj..

Surprised that scabby street stalls charge more for a coke, for example, than an air-conditioned 711 in the Philippines. People were rude, I'll-mannered, and dishonest. The practiced response for almost any expected tip is disappointment it wasn't bigger.

The politicians are not the only ones with corruption problems. The average Indian seems to be selfish, dishonest, and arrogant- apart from the poorest, who the rest of India leave to die on the street.

I think independence came a little early. They probably needed another 100 years to learn a few manners.

Of course, I met some nice people, but overall, my experience confirmed that India is a hole, filled with irrationally proud people.

My greatest disappointment is the English introduced the English language making it possible for the most arrogant of the classist racist mob, to bring their arrogance to the rest of the world.
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