Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bombay & the art of begging $40M a year.

The papers this week have been carrying stories about how a government survey shows that Bombay beggars earn $40 million a year. Totally believable and not at all surprising. Infact goes to show the wealth of Bombay.

Beggar Masters
Many years back I knew a guy called
Sar Zammen Bhai who was a beggar master. He used to collect unwanted children (normally with physical disfigurations) from poor families and put them in his slum colony. He then trained these kids to become beggars. In return he provided them with food, shelter and love.

A beggar kid has two sources of earning money. The obvious is earning through begging. The unknown is beggars also work as spies for businessman and mafia. They hang around their targets on streets, railway stations, office buildings, etc and eavesdrop on their conversations. Some of the beggars are also experts at eavesdropping through walls.

Begging Tribes
The second kind of beggars in Bombay are tribal beggars. These are tribes which solely live by the profession of begging. They have done this for 1000s of years. They are true professional beggars. Some of them perform street stunts and beg; some of the irritate you and extract money from you; others have animals like monkeys, snakes and parrots which they use in their begging arsenal; and some, the best, are experts at make-up and acting to make them appear totally wretched. In these tribes, the entire family moves to cities during certain months and begs while living off the pavements or in slums; and during planting & harvesting time they move to their villages to tend to crops.

The third kind of beggars are
Hijras. These are so called Enuchs or Transvestites. Apparently men who were born gay and this was detected at a very early age, so their penis has been chopped off and they are now a 3rd sex. They look like men and dress like women. They have this special way of clapping to alert others of their presence. They put on a lewd and comical act which people laugh at. They work closely with watchmen in buildings, who alert them of any wedding or new birth in a building, where they immediately show up and start their nuisance creating act. They have also created a myth about themselves that if you don't give money to a begging Hijrah you will have bad luck forever. Another well created structure by them is that every Thursday one must give money to Hijras.

The fourth kind of beggars are scam artistes. These are educated people who are well dressed. They will often approach you in a respectable and unusual location, like a bookshop, and tell you a sad story like how their son is about to graduate and how he needs Rs. 5000 ($110) for some last minute books. That you can even buy the books for him from this very bookshop. Ofcourse after you do, the scamster in league with the shop owner or salesman return the books and splits the money.

Beggar Haunts
The usual hangouts for beggars are: near religious shrines; traffic signals in upmarket localities; airport; railway stations; outside open air eateries: a person begging while you are eating is a very compelling sight!; and in tourist areas.

The Solution
So why is it so hard for us to do anything about beggars? Well what can you do with beggars? Indian is a democracy so we can't beat them or shoot them; the only thing that can be done is fine them. And if they don't pay? Well they are beggars, so they are happy to go into jails and receive free meals. So there appears to be no way out.

Bombay's Problem
Why Bombay, why does it have so many beggars. People tell me there are no beggars in Delhi or Pune or Bangalore or Hyderabad, atleast not as many as Bombay. So whats up? Its because Bombay is a rich city, much richer than the other cities. And the rich always feel guilty and need to give away their money to feel better (Gates & Buffet like)....

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