WHEN YOU TRAVEL TO INDIA, it is inevitable to be approached by begging children on the streets. I’ve spoken with various Indian NGO founders to gather advice about the right way for travelers to interact with these Indian child beggars; these NGOs are dedicated to aiding marginalized children through housing, education, rehab, and counseling services. UNICEF defines “marginalized children” as children who are living and working in the streets and are inadequately protected, supervised, or directed by responsible adults.
Marlo Philip PhD is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Tejas Asia, a nonprofit that aids underprivileged youth in India and currently serves around 1,000 children. NPR reports there are more than 300,000 children who live on the streets of New Delhi. India has the world’s largest population of children who live and work on the streets, upwards of 11 million throughout the country. The first thing he mentioned was that the term “street children” is considered very disrespectful and makes the vulnerable youth feel like they have absolutely no value, as do street dogs. Instead, the appropriate term to use when referring to this community is “children living on the streets of India”. He shared that while there are no official records, through his work with this community over the last 7 years, he’s calculated that these children can make around Rs 100-150 a day, about $2 USD.
Vaivhav Todi, Director of the Indian sustainable travel company, Green Pastures, shared with us that there is a constant debate amongst Indian nationals about whether children at risk should be given money. It is hard to resist helping a child in need when they’re only asking for spare change. Todi told us that giving money to these vulnerable children only encourages them to continue begging.
When I visited Salaam Balaak Trust, a charity that provides shelter homes annually for 3,000 former children living and working on the streets of India, I met Ejaz, a former beneficiary who taught me about what kids finance through tourism dollars. The children’s earnings must be spent by the end of the day before they fall asleep, as they risk being robbed if they keep cash on them overnight. With such a short time-frame to turn over their begging funds they often spend money on entertainment, such as seeing the latest Bollywood movies.
Through pop culture, they’ve been exposed to gambling, drinking, drugs, and prostitution. Children who are living on the streets battle addiction to local alcohol and sniffing inhalants such as sniffing glue, petrol, and nail polish. Some suffer from STDs contracted through paid interactions with sex workers, who are often girls who’ve run away from home. Philip added that a small percentage of these children are trying to support their siblings or other homeless children through the funds they’ve earned on the street.
Ejaz explained that children don’t need cash to support their addictions. They can make money by rag-picking, collecting plastic bottles, selling items they’ve stolen, or packaged food that’s been given to them. There are more girls than boys living on the streets. Most of the girls run away from home because they feel like a burden to their families, who will have to pay a hefty dowry when they marry. These girls end up working as prostitutes. They can have upwards of 10 customers a day, each paying 300 rupees which are distributed largely to the broker who finds clients, the pimp who manages the girls — and then a small amount to the sex worker herself.
Ejaz is a former beneficiary who ran away from home when he was 11 years old. After being repeatedly abused by his father, he snuck onto a train from Bihar to New Delhi. Abuse is a common reason why children run away from home in India. A child arrives alone on a train platform in India every five minutes.
Ejaz lived on the streets and supported himself through begging and working in a lock shop near the main New Delhi railway station. A majority of runaway children end up and live in the New Delhi slum. Ejaz was approached by a social worker from Salaam Baalak Trust, who told him about the charity’s programs and facilities. Ejaz decided to join their boys home. Ejaz is now 20 years old, is a paid guide and will start college this year. He is just one of thousands of success stories from Salaam Balaak Trust. The charity has even been recognized by the British monarchy; The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the organization during their 2016 tour of India.
Marlo Phillip shared a story with us that once Tejas Asia had distributed sandals to some children they’d noticed were always barefoot. They went back to check on the group two days later and the shoes were gone. The kids claimed that they had been stolen but Phillip believes they were sold in order to make some extra money to support the children’s dangerous habits. Anything you give to a child on the streets of India could potentially be sold, and the money could be used for a negative lifestyle.
Besides begging for money, collecting and stealing goods to sell, there is a common scam of children asking tourists to buy baby formula for their siblings. Phillip explained how this money-making strategy works — the child takes a tourist to a specific vendor to purchase the milk powder, then, once the tourist has left, the child will return the package and be given a percentage of the profit, while the vendor will keep a heftier amount.
Salaam Balaak Trust Coordinator Tanya Alag recommends that travelers give children a packet of biscuits rather than money. Family-sized bags of individually packaged servings of fiber-rich biscuits are sold for around $1 USD. I usually carried an entire bag with me whenever I went out in India and often had given away all 10 packages within 30-minutes. If you give something to eat to one child, at least five more of their peers will flock over to see if you have more. I tried to stay in charge of the situation by making it clear how many packages I had, evenly distributed the food among the kids, then walked away. The children almost always still begged me for money, even after I gave them a snack. I refused. If you’re heading back to the same area the next day these children will remember you, so try to bring snacks with you daily.
Most of these children are in need of protection and care, but they are not starving. There are many resources for free food in India, such as Sikh temples, known as Gurudwaras, which feed thousands of people for free daily. Ejaz told me that when I give children food I should always open it before I give it to them. By opening a banana or a package of biscuits the child cannot sell the product you’ve just given them. Phillip said that usually such foods will be a treat for these children and they’ll eat them right in front of you.
Alag recommended evaluating whether the children who approach you are distressed — ask if they are lost and looking for their family. If they say yes offer to call a child helpline for them or bring them to an NGO-operated shelter. You can call the toll-free CHILDLINE Indian Foundation phone emergency outreach service by dialing 1098.
Don’t let them use your phone, in order to avoid it being stolen — instead, manage the conversation yourself and ask the professional on the line how to handle the situation. It is important to remember that most of these children lack respectful interactions with other humans. Sonu Kaur, the Founder of Thrive Seed, a nonprofit that provides education for children from less fortunate backgrounds, reiterated that the most important thing is to treat them with respect as you would any other person and show them some decency. These children feel invisible and abandoned by their government and the adults who were supposed to care for them. Don’t expect anything in return, though, “What is very important is for the giver to give with a kind heart and clear vision,” Kaur said.
Phillip also recommended giving children potable water, although they may sell the bottle. These children are unkempt and filthy but Phillip has never come across a case of a child carrying a contagious disease. Kaur encouraged giving sanitizer or wet wipes, but that they likely won’t know how to use them, so give a demonstration if you provide these hygienic tools.
Everyone we spoke with agreed that the most important thing to keep in mind when interacting with children on the streets of India is to treat them with dignity and respect. If the child seems to comprehend English, have a conversation with them about where they are from, their lives, maybe even ask if they’re attending school. You can be a role model for these children for what their lives can look like if they join a shelter, go through rehab, and attend school. Kaur tells us that tourists can be an example of the importance of education. Engage with the children by asking them what their favorite subject is, telling stories, or jokes.
Phillip also suggested sharing a meal with the children if you’re comfortable doing so. If you’re in a relaxed environment like a park and have colored pencils on hand, a frisbee, or another game, try to invite them to partake in an activity with you. These children are not a tourist attraction. If they pose for a photo they will demand a few rupees. Just don’t take their photo, they’re underage and they have no guardian who can give you permission to snap a shot. Instead, have authentic engagement with them. Just as with everyone you encounter while traveling, you can probably learn a lot from each other. “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do,” a Mahatma Gandhi once said.