How to deal with poverty and beggars in India?

“Oh no, I don’t want to go to India. I could never cope with the poverty, the chaos and the dirt!”. You hear that a lot. More so, I used to be one of the people who used to respond this way, when asked if I ever visited India.

This year however, I was in India for 18 weeks, and yes, I survived just fine AND had a good time. OK, I still find India totally overwhelming, tiring and heavy on all the senses, but is IS doable.

I realise that I am very privileged, staying in India in the best hotels and with enough money to go around. Even then it is tough on the delicate minded, weakhearted and fragile healthed like me.

Your heart must be of stone not to be touched by scenes like these:

The people in the picture above at least have a sort of roof over their heads and ‘beds’ to sleep in.

Often enough you see people who don’t: 

Begging children are everywhere:

Being confronted with all this makes you feel uncomfortable at the least. Probably you will also feel guilty, pity, mercy, helpless, sad, hopeless and angry. I know I did and do.

“How can you travel, have fun, shop, dine, while these people lead hard and poor lifes? It is so unfair!”. Yes, it sure is! 

What did I learn, how did I deal with it and what are my tips?

After my months in India, I discovered that there are many poor people, but just a small percentage that beg. The majority of the poor people have some sort of roof over their heads, be it a sheet of plastic or corrugated iron. 
Also most of them work and earn money. And many succeed somehow to have crispy clean clothes, hand washed in ghats (waters, rivers, etc.). I admire them! (You can read more  about poverty in India here.)

Only a small percentage is really homeless, sleeping literally on the pavement, unable to work, forced to beg, by destiny or by ‘pimps’.

We are talking about huge numbers here, so even ‘a small percentage’ is  a whole lot of people. Besides that, every one of them is one too many. No one should have to live like that.

Who are those poorest of the poorest? They are often elderly, sick, disabled or mentally ill. If not, then often they are women and children. There is a lot of exploitation going on with women and children.
I guess we all have seen Slumdog Millionaire, where they show this very clearly and shockingly. 

Well, children indeed get dismembered or blinded in order to raise more pity and with that more money for their ‘pimps’, as I call them. Women rent a baby from someone else to go out begging. Etcetera.
The scams and exploitations are endless.

So how did and do I deal with all this?

First of all, I harden my heart  for all the misery I encounter and protect it with the mantra “Ignore beggars.”. This helps, even though it is very unlike me and sometimes I realize with a shock how well I succeed doing this.
Then I have to remind myself why I am doing this and that walking around feeling sorry and guilty helps nobody.

What DOES help?

I hope I made clear that giving money to beggars is not a wise thing to do, since with that we support and maintain the circle of exploitation. Your money tends to end up with some bad people, very likely not with the beggar.

What we can do, is to support and donate to help-organizations, either before, during or after our travel.
The obvious and easiest way is to donate money to a good organization, that way we know what it is used for and who will benefit. 
Another way is to loan money. I am a member of KIVA and set out two micro loans to Indians through them last month. 
Travellers that have a lot of time time can consider donating their time by working in a volunteer project in India (or wherever they are). I worked a couple of times for a ‘meals for the poor’ project in Singapore. You can read more about that here. Unfortunately I am not long enough in one place nowadays to be of much value for volunteer organizations.

Instead of money, we can give goods, like food or toiletries. Things that are of no value for the ‘pimps’ of the poor. From time to time I filled a plastic bag with bread, fruits, soap, combs, pens and so on. When I went into town, I looked out for the first homeless or begging person or family that I saw and handed them the bag.

And ofcourse you can start your own project or organization
Travelling through India the enormity of the poverty can be very disheartening. Where to start and what difference can your small donation make? 
Personally I find that every cent makes a difference. And even if it doesn’t or wouldn’t, we still have to believe that it does, IMHO. Having said that, it can be very inspiring and rewarding to start a micro project of your own. Help a specific person, family, school, group, street or neighborhood in a concrete way. Choose a way, a goal and people that are close to you and your heart. Keep your project and goal manageable for you; small scaled. You will feel less helpless and hopeless, since you see first hand that you DO make a difference.
Take e.g. the light bottle project in Manilla.. Pretty brilliant and wonderful! Or you can build a plastic bottle school like they have done e.g. in Guatamala. Check out this video about using trash to build schools:

There are many ways to make a difference, I hope you find yours. And DO visit India; it is definitely worth it!


  1. says

    Brilliant Idea about the Bottle School.My 2nd point is about Kiva, I am sure they are doing a really good thing to help others. however the situation in India is bit different, Indian govt have many schemes to help poor people with some fundraising for opening up business and other things, But most of them are uneducated even to understand the application form or 90% of people don’t even know that the such schemes even exist. I am not sure how Kiva will help them , Rest the Blog is Brilliant!.

    • says

      I understand your remarks, Amit. Reaching the people who actually need this help is of course a crucial point. I don’t know how KIVA does that, to be honest. But as you point out yourself, there are lots of other organizations and projects around who do good work. I am sure that people that want to donate will be able to find one that they trust and believe in.

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