“Sahab, Bhawgwan ke naam par kuch de do” (Sir, give us something in the name of God). These are the familiar lines we get to hear on almost all traffic signals on Indian roads. Anyone who stops by a traffic signal is assailed on all sides by professional beggars to give them a hand-out. When small children in shabby torn clothes and sometimes carrying their infant brothers/sisters (as it seems) approach us, what is our immediate reaction? When a person approaches who has leprosy and his hands or/and toes are eaten away, what is our immediate reaction? We simply reach into our pockets, take out coin(s)/note(s) and hand it over to the beggar. We think why not give?
But this ‘benevolent’ act of ours is mostly harmful. Our pittance which is actually a fortune for the beggar is actually out of a feeling to give away few pennies to alleviate our conscience. It makes us feel that we have done something good. Something which is commendable. But actually, we have done no good to those beggars. We have instead played an important part in worsening their conditions.
I feel that handing out money in this way is simply a way of shielding ourselves from addressing the core problem. After handing out the alms, we feel satisfied that we have shared our fortune with the poor. But in fact we are leaving the problem alone. We have simply thrown money and walked away to avoid ourselves being indulged in to the problem. But for how long? The beggar will simply move on to the next person on the traffic signal. That is what he has been doing for days, months and years. That is what he will be doing for days, months and years unless and until we stop handing out pittance to make ourselves good.
I don’t mean to challenge our moral duty to help, but the fact lies that we hand out alms to tell the beggar to leave us alone and go next door. We should understand ‘what matters is how we help such people who are facing abysmal poverty, in what form this help should be rendered.’
Let us think for a minute what this pittance actually does. What are its adverse effects – it removes the incentive for the beggar to work and generate income (Samaritan’s dilemma). It robs him off his dignity. It makes the beggar think, “To earn money, what I have to do is sit here whole day and approach the passers-by for alms when the traffic signal shows red”. Last, but not the least, our pittance unknowingly pushes more people, esp. kids into the “business of begging”. This fact has rightly been established by movies like Traffic Signal and Slumdog Millionaire.
Till a year back, whenever I used to stop by a traffic signal, and a beggar would approach me, I quite naturally use to give him/her alms. But then I realised that I am worsening their problem. Somewhere, I am also responsible for their sufferance. Since then, whenever I see a child begging, I resist my natural impulse to give. Many a times, I ask them their name, how old he/she is, how they entered into this begging activity, whether he/she has sought any medical assistance and most importantly what other skills they have. I suggest them certain activities where they can use their mentioned skills and earn a livelihood. This makes me feel I was of some help to them. However, I do accept that I give hand-outs sometimes, when the human misery is so terrible – a severely handicapped person with no limbs and arms and unable to do any physical work, a mother with a dying child, a person with some incurable disease or serious deformities, that I cannot stop my hands from reaching to my pocket and giving the poor person something. But I try to resist this urge as much as possible.