I hinted in an earlier blog post that I was curious about Indian Beggars Unions. In the past several years, panhandlers in India have been forming unions to protect their turf and advocate for their rights. Go street people!
My first reaction was laughter. What could a panhandler’s union possibly want: Crisp $10 bills instead of change? And what happens when they don’t get what they want and go on strike? Will anyone notice?
For the record, I am a generous dollar giver. I can spare $10 a week to make somebody’s life better immediately. I do this because I do not know of anyone who woke up one day and said to themselves: “I want to be a panhandler. That’s my lifelong dream.” You got to be pretty desperate to spend day after day in the hot sun and cold winters, begging for change from a few generous souls… and simultaneously incurring the wrath and stares from 99.9% of the others. Beggars do what they do to survive… I would rather that they have a few dollars in their pocket to buy some food and drink than die in the streets. “Go get a job!” I think in most cases, if they were able to secure a good job that would pay their bills and keep a roof over their heads, beggars would do so. Most are poorly educated and mentally ill… not even McDonalds will hire them. And for those who say that they make bank over people like me and use their money to buy drugs… I counter, who cares? I’m not the morality police. Although I would rather that they they use my dollar in a more productive way, it’s not my place to tell them what to do with it. As with any other monetary transaction, once the cash leaves my hands, I lose control. I also wish my taxes wouldn’t be used for our country’s various Middle Eastern Wars, but there’s nothing I can do about that either.
I also have the unintended side benefit now of having a few homeless “friends” who watch out for me when I exit the Metro late at night. Treating someone who never gets respect with dignity… they’re your friends for life.
So after saying all of that… what is the point of forming a beggar’s union? Probably like all unions, these organizations will ensure that beggars can make a living with reasonable protections. I assume that panhandlers will pay dues to make sure that their organization has the means to educate their cities on their plight, and work with the municipalities to make sure that beggars are not prosecuted for working the streets, unless they are aggressive or violating other’s rights, advocate for more homeless shelters, soup kitchens, health-care centers and drug treatment assistance. Lofty aims.
Back to India: in poor families, begging is often passed down generationally, and even amongst the wealthy, is seen in a religious context. In old age traditionally, men renounce the world and seek enlightenment. Begging for food allows them to fulfill their quest. And of course, villagers gain karma by giving food and money to these men. But like any other third world country, the have-nots vastly outnumber the haves… and well, giving my dollar away in my motherland can be dangerous! Once you give money to a beggar, be prepared for hundreds of people to surround you, expecting the same.
Unfortunately, in India, like many old-school unions, I learned that the Mafia have taken over, so the most vulnerable that gets screwed over yet again. The “union” controls which streets the panhandlers can work, and only those who are loyal to their bosses (and pays an exorbitant sum of their gains to them) get the prime spots. And of course, they shake down local business owners and passerbys for their “alms.” Some “unions” have become so profitable, that many beggars can take a day off. Ahhhh… weekends!