Courtesy Reuters

The Business of Begging

Who Begs, Why, and What to do About It

As I cross the main road to the Red Fort in Delhi, I hear a young girl behind me. “Deedhi,” she says, “dus rupaye dedo” (sister, give me ten rupees). She isn’t alone. Around her are a group of young children. Some are just five or six years old, some are older. All of them are wearing ragged clothes and have dusty feet and sweet faces. They are in high spirits, and I want to give them something. I don’t have any change, though, so I say, half in Urdu and half in English, “Main dhoongi, when I come back! I will give you some when I come back.” In unison, the children respond, “Come back. Come back.”

At some point, almost everyone, everywhere has been asked by a beggar for spare change. No matter where the interaction takes place, it is usually followed by the same set of uncomfortable questions: Why was the person on the street? Why was he or she asking me? What will he or she do with my money? Will the beggar use or misuse it?

Beggars are not a homogenous group. In the subcontinent, with which I am most familiar, they range from the seemingly fit and physically able to the disabled, the elderly, women with babies, the third gender, and street children. When questioned, each has his or her own heart-wrenching story. But there are some common factors that lead to begging.

For illustration, look to Pakistan’s Lahore and India’s Mumbai. Both have large populations of street beggars. Ascertaining exact figures is difficult, owing to the fluidity of the population. However, its vast scale is on display for all to see. Both cities are huge and dense second cities of their respective nations. Mumbai boasts a population of around 13 million, the largest city in India. Lahore squares up to a reported 10 million. In both, there is a vast disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and both cities attract scores of mostly poorer migrants from smaller

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