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 neighboring cities who are in search of greater opportunity.

Both cities -- and South Asia in general -- also have a strong culture of alms-giving. Islam, the predominant religion of Pakistan, prohibits begging but makes charity a duty for all Muslims. Likewise, the predominant religion of India, Hinduism, promotes dana (charity) to the less fortunate. During my field research in Lahore, I often found beggars congregating around shrines in order to extract donations from visitors. “Allah ke naam mein dehde” (Give me alms in the name of God), was a common phrase. In India, beggars are found at religious venues, too. The ambience works their favor; people there feel more obliged to give.

The density and size of those cities also creates opportunities for beggars. Birth rates are high, but immigration is even higher. In Mumbai, large numbers of migrants come from smaller cities looking for work and the Mumbai Dream. In Lahore, internal migration is complemented by millions of Afghan refugees. Many of the migrants are unskilled and are seeking any type of work. But they often find themselves worse off in the city than they were at home. And that leads to begging.

In South Asia, few beggars work alone. They usually wind up attached to a network, either willingly or not. These networks are of often referred to as a “begging mafia,” perhaps because vulnerable adults and children living on the fringes of society are recruited to beg on the streets and give their earnings to their alleged patrons. In both India and Pakistan, these groups work traffic light intersections, outside mosques and temples, and in busy shopping malls. It seems that these groups “buy” certain swathes of territory to manage.

Some reports go so far as to say that the recruits are often mutilated, as beggars with deformities and disabilities attract more sympathy and therefore tend to earn more. Children tend to get more money as well, so kidnapping children and renting babies to women is another method of maximizing donations. That has led to a disproportionate number of young beggars in South Asia.

But it is probably an exaggeration to call these groups a mafia. Through my own research, I have found that there are a plethora of reasons why people turn to begging, and to paint all beggars as part of a mafia --or to indeed term it a mafia at all -- would be generalizing a very complex issue and painting all beggars as criminals. That kind of thinking is superficial and glosses over the desperation that most beggars face. Still, kidnapping, maiming, and renting children for begging purposes does happen, and it is a clear abuse of children’s rights.

Both countries have passed laws and formed institutions to try to protect children. These have been successful in some cases. For example, the Pakistan’s Child Protection Welfare Bureau (CPWB), first set up in 2005, is still working to rescue and rehabilitate street children. But the majority of street children there and in India have been left behind. Their plight is made all the worse by the fact that, upon turning into an adult, they will be subject to adult treatment in the courts, which could lead to imprisonment.

Law enforcement in both countries prohibits begging. But locking up a beggar is not an effective solution. Busting gangs is, because that could help rein in the people who are recruiting beggars and putting them on the street. This line of action, therefore, should be taken more seriously. However, even as the governments address the symptoms, they should also combat the issue by looking at the roots of the begging phenomenon. If they did, they could make more progress alleviating and, in the long run, maybe even eradicating begging as a social problem. More efforts to understand the begging phenomenon, educate societies and those in charge of social welfare, and build more practical social welfare programs would be worthwhile complements to law enforcement.

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  • SHEBA SAEED is a Researcher at the University of Birmingham and Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics. She is author of "Child Beggars of Lahore."
  • More By Sheba Saeed