land of the jobs?

I asked Appa whether he gives money to beggars.  Earlier today, I had walked by someone who was very thin and elderly, lying with his hands over his eyes, until I reached him, at which point he leapt up. His sudden, intense stare frightened me and I quickened my pace without noticing what I was doing until he was out of sight. No, Appa said, I do not give money to beggars, except sometimes.

The jobs are there – if someone is able-bodied and willing, they can make money. The problem with these people is that they are lazy, and they have found a lucrative business in begging. Most of these people have money – they are money lenders, their children are very well-to-do . What they will do is leave the place where they’re from, beg in another state, and go back home for holidays. The babies the girls hold are rented for the day. They stand near temples, where tourists are likely to be tricked into giving money, in a foolish attempt to please God.  The only beggars who deserve our money are priests, saints and monks: their only job is to bring peace and spiritual knowledge to the world, and do not have time to concern themselves with anything but prayer and meditation – therefore, it is our job to give them alms. The act of asking for food to survive destroys the ego, so these holy men deserve to be fed.  These beggars on the streets now, 99% of them are lazy cheaters and could be making money other more honest ways.

So says Appa. I described to him how in the United States, jobs aren’t always there, and told him about the homeless and the poor people in my country.  He nodded vehemently and described how when he was in London, the beggars and women had been honest-to-goodness poor people. Here it is not like that, he said. Maybe in past times people really were poor and suffering, but now, the work is there.

I was suspicious, because Appa’s description of lazy people who would rather leave their homes and stand on the streets making “easy money” than stay in their home state and make money in what Appa describes as a more honest and perfectly attainable way does not seem like the whole story.  Besides, I’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before in the U.S. – that there are lazy people who live off welfare because it’s easier and more lucrative than working an honest job that’s waiting for “these people” if they just leave their house.  As if American society was this simple. The many pockets in my country with high crime and low rates of high school graduation are not full of people who are lazy, violent and stupid. Rather, they are places where the prison industrial complex has a strong hold, where people are trapped in cycles of poverty that are incredibly difficult to escape from.

Although I am suspicious that Appa’s position tells a complete story, my U.S. comparison is not analogous: begging is a business in India, and giving money to someone who may not even get to the keep the money seems hopeless.

Still, I couldn’t less this go: there are people who really are impoverished and starving, of course there are, and until larger structural problems begin to be fixed, aren’t there ways to help alleviate suffering through money, time, study and work? When I say this to Ammaa and Appa, they shake their heads and explain to me that it is it is not so anymore, and that this perception of India as a third world country where everyone is poor is essentially wrong and the reason why begging has become a business – tourists are beggars’ prime customers.

I don’t believe that poverty is as avoidable and minimal as Appa and Amma say, but I learned from them maybe that it does not take the form that many visitors to India might believe.  As a tourist, I have an obligation to know this: my ten rupees passed to the people who tap me on the shoulder will not necessarily ease suffering, and may even be contributing to the disturbing belief that reducing poverty is an unattainable, hopeless goal. (?)

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