On Friday, the UK’s international development secretary announced that the country will be withdrawing its aid from India by 2015. Whilst some have hailed this decision a new start for the country, others have highlighted its continuing problems with poverty, homelessness and child malnourishment.
Indeed, India is still struggling to feed its population and, despite advancements to its trade and space exploration industries, as many as 3, 000 children die every day. Whilst charities like Oxfam have condemned the decision, Indian experts welcome the move and hail it a positive sign of India’s prospering economy.
For a number of years, India has been a popular destination with backpackers, seeking an economical but equally cultural experience. To compare flights with other places in Asia and further afield is to understand a factor of the appeal, India is an incredibly cost-effective country for westerners. But does a trip to India expose the thriving metropolis or the slum? I talked to Flora Baker, travel writer and editor-in-chief at Flora the Explorer, who has spent the last four months travelling through North and South India and has worked extensively with the homeless. The following is a transcript of that interview:
How did you deal with the poverty you witnessed on a daily basis, or was it not a direct issue?
In India, it’s virtually impossible to just witness poverty. It’s everywhere, constantly, and it becomes an integral part of anyone’s visit to the country. I found poverty one of the biggest issues to cope with. I volunteer with the homeless in London and seeing so many families, not just individuals, living in makeshift shelters in parks and on the streets was constantly upsetting for me.
I was also traveling in one of the hottest periods of the year – temperatures in some cities reaching 40+ degrees – and people were clearly dying on the streets.
Dying on the streets?
Yes, In Delhi, my friends wanted to go to the McDonalds in Connaught Place (a famous central shopping area which is popular amongst Indians). As we made our way across the car park to the main entrance, we saw an emaciated woman lying on her back across the pavement; her eyes open, barely breathing. There were flies all over her face, settling on her eyes and ears, and even crawling busily in and around her mouth. She wasn’t moving a muscle, and I’m pretty sure she was about to die. I didn’t know what to do but as we stood there, a group of young Indians who were heading for McDonalds stepped over her feet to reach the door. They didn’t give her a second glance as they went inside the restaurant. I honestly felt so disgusted with them, but also with myself, because I didn’t have a clue what I would do if I’d grown up with such abject poverty around me every day.
That is truly horrific. Was it even worse in the slums? Saying that, did you even partake in “slum tourism”?
I spent a few days in Mumbai and could have toured the slums, but I felt like I wouldn’t feel comfortable there; like I would be exploiting the people by treating their home and community like a tourist spot. I know that Indian slum tours are billed as showing ‘the real India’, and perhaps they do, but I feel as if such tours end up precipitating the myth that India’s poverty is just ‘something that happens’, leaving the tourist who takes part in one free of any guilt. I do believe that the poverty in India can be helped, but it’s a very delicate issue, and something that the quietly industrious NGOs are working towards in private, which is why it’s not immediately obvious to the public eye.
Was begging a problem?
Consistently, particularly as my methods for coping with it changed from day to day. Sometimes I directly engaged with begging children and chatted to them about their day, whereas other times I simply looked away whenever they came close, even though it was really difficult to do so. There were days when I really wanted to help them and others where I couldn’t deal with another little hand grabbing at my trouser leg. Waiting for the traffic lights to change in a car was also pretty difficult, as children always come knocking at the window saying “sister, sister” in Hindi and putting their fingers to their mouths. It’s really hard to look the other way.
Basically if you’re an emotional person it feels like every poor child you encounter could easily benefit from money or food, but you have to hold back sometimes and consider whether giving them something is just adding to the problem. A lot of tourists are told not to give out sweets as dentistry is equally hard to come by in the poorer parts of India; same with pens and pencils, because the child who doesn’t receive one will feel even worse, and fights often break out to snatch the newest tourist-given prize.
So did you give money or food to beggars?
On occasion, yes. It was always rife with criticism though; for every child or beggar you give something to, another person who sees you do it has the opinion that you shouldn’t.
I travelled with the same group of people for a while, and we resolved to always give a child food instead of money if we had the urge to give something, because they couldn’t get hurt by a gang member for eating, but could be punished for not getting enough money.
Being asked specifically for food was a problem, though; I was never sure if they were simply going to sell the food back to the stall holder (I saw this happen a number of times with fruit or chapatti).
How do you feel about begging on a moral level? I’ve read stories of child trafficking and of begging gangs that cut and scar children to make them more “appealing” to tourists. Did you witness anything this extreme?
I never saw any children being manhandled by anyone I took to be a gang member, although one girl who followed us around at a train station did keep glancing behind her as if looking for someone checking up on her, and when we bought her a plate of food she didn’t eat it, merely looking disappointed.
There were many beggars with distorted limbs who were clearly suffering from polio, in Rajasthan especially, and these were the people I would give money to on a more immediate basis as they evidently needed help. Most children were dirty, in ragged clothes and with bare feet, but I didn’t see any with obvious injuries that could have been inflicted on them.
The difficult situations to judge in terms of morality were the mothers who thrust their babies into your face. Often the child was stark naked while the women were dressed in barely passable clothes, which often raised my doubts. It felt very much like they assumed a naked baby would illicit more emotion and thus more money from us, but it actually made me think twice. The idea of using your child so blatantly to pull on someone’s heartstrings made me feel very uncomfortable. I ended giving more money to people who actively weren’t asking me for it, which is what I often do at home in England too.
Has visiting India changed your world view?
I make a point of volunteering in many of the countries I go to, particularly in impoverished places. I’ve seen poverty manifested in lots of different communities, but India really knocked me for six. The sheer scale of it is so overwhelming that it makes you readdress just how many people there are in the world who survive on so little. The balance simply isn’t fair, and it’s made me more resolved to seek out homeless initiatives to work with whenever I’m traveling abroad.
I knew that India would change my outlook on a lot of issues, but I hadn’t bargained for how vehement I would get about poverty. Many people are so lucky to have the things they do; particularly in the UK where the government will give you unemployment benefits and housing. We have our issues with how the country is run but ultimately, we are so much better off than many other places in the world.