Travel India: To give or not to give: the dilemma of begging

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The Independent Culture
AT EIGHT in the evening at Agra railway station, platform two was a muggy, dirt-coated cradle for the wealthy foreigners daytripping to the Taj - each waiting impatiently for their delayed air-conditioned passage back to Delhi - and the less well-off Indians forming strategic plans for how they were going to jostle their way on to the already crammed overnight express train to Bombay.

The little boy shuffling towards me on the station platform must have been about 10 or 11 years old. At first glance, he seemed to be wearing giant slippers. The reality came as a shock. The "slippers" were his own diseased feet, grotesquely blown up to about four times their proper size. My first instinct was to turn and skulk off to the other end of the platform but conscience kicked in. I delved into my wallet for a few rupees as he started to drag himself with tremendous effort my way. The next minute though, I was full of regret. Had I done the right thing or was I just encouraging him to live with a somewhat lucrative disease, rather than try to get it cured?

Giving money - or food, pens, or any other donation - to beggars in an overseas country is a tricky issue. The general consensus is not to because you encourage a life of begging rather than of education and employment. The issue is further complicated by the fact that children might not get to keep the money you give them, as it is often filtered straight into the hands of a threatening parent or, in some cases, pimp. And you are adding to the hassles of that country for the next tourist that comes along, as they will inevitably be pestered more ferociously.

This view is reinforced by Sue Wheat of the charity Tourism Concern, who advises that "giving money to children who beg often causes more problems than it solves because it distorts the local economics and generates an unhealthy dependency on tourists". She also recommends holding back from non-monetary donations to children, as "however fun they may seem, some gifts have surprisingly serious effects. There have been," she adds, "cases of hepatitis spread by infected children blowing up balloons - given to them to play with by Western tourists - and then passing those balloons on to their friends to blow up a bit more."

So, if you decide not to give, what can you do to help these people more productively? Ms Wheat advises giving money to local charities, self- help projects, or donating useful items such as pens to a local school. When booking your trip, you should also look for tour operators who give a certain amount back to relevant charities in the country you will be visiting.

Butterfield's Indian Railway Tours (01262 420569) is one such travel company. Ashley and Jane Butterfield have lived in India for several years and their tours aim to make clients aware of the realities of life in India and Pakistan. The tours are run on train carriages and, since all meals are cooked on board, any spare food is given away to local people. Some money from each tour is also put towards the Butterfield's various projects. As Ashley explains, "just giving money doesn't work. We would rather provide food or hospital treatment for particular families". But he adds: "as tourists, you have to make an instant judgement and, if you want to give, then you should."

Tourism Concern (0171-753 3330) costs pounds 18 to join (pounds 9, unwaged)