December 6, 2010
When visiting India there are a few pieces of information I think all tourists should know in order to practice responsible tourism. I spoke a lot about responsible tourism in Africa debating the difficult issue of who should be responsible for being responsible: the tourist or the tour operator. In Africa the issue surrounds eco-tourism and viewing animals in the wild or in sanctuaries. In India the issue is much worse because animals are captured from the wild and chained into captivity for the tourists enjoyment. Sometimes, like in the case of the peacock, the animal is even killed. Being a responsible tourist applies to more than just animals, and in India where begging is a gigantic part of the culture that is impossible to avoid it is important to know the proper protocol for dealing with beggars- especially children. So for your convenience I have compiled a few tips for dealing with these unfortunate encounters.
The Snake Charmer: It is almost a guarantee that at some point during your travels in India that you see a snake charmer. The snake charmers are usually dressed traditionally in a turban and simple clothes and they play a flute entrancing a dangerous cobra to dance for them. This seems like an amazing opportunity for amateur photographers and tourists in general to snap a few pictures of a piece of Indian culture and then of course give a few rupees to the charmer for the performance. In reality the cobra has been de-poisoned by removing their poison glands or ripping out their fangs. The charmers are not actually “charming” the snake, but are simply provoking the snake to make it stand up and then making eye contact with the snake and moving their body so the snake copies them. After a year or so the snake stops doing this and the charmers release them and without their poison glands or fangs they die a slow and painful death. India has made it illegal to practice snake charming, but many of the charmers ignore the fact and depend on tourist dollars to photograph them or to be photographed with the snakes. If tourists stopped financially supporting them eventually the practice would stop.
The Performing Monkey: You may not see this in one of the big cities like New Delhi or Mumbai, but if you go out to smaller towns you will most likely see men with Rhesus Macaque monkeys on leashes and chains. These monkeys are caught from the wild and forced to perform for the tourists. You often will see the owner with a large stick and he will force the monkey to jump on top the stick and perform. However what most tourists don’t see is if the monkey doesn’t jump on the stick he is beaten with it often so badly that the monkeys become crippled and can no longer perform and then are abandoned in their wounded state and die slow painful deaths. Just like the snake charmers the monkeys are used for the tourists to get money so if tourists stop paying these men they will stop capturing the monkeys- simple as that.
Peacock Feather Products: When visiting any major city you will see many items with peacock feathers like jewelry and fans. The peacock is India’s national bird and the feathers are so beautiful that tourists love to buy them, especially the fans on a hot day. However, these feathers are usually not gathered humanely as they shed them. Many of these street vendors collect the feathers by leaving out poison in the woods killing the peacock and then plucking the feathers guaranteeing a constant supply of them. Again this is a simple case of supply and demand so I encourage you to buy peacock feather products from legitimate stores and never from the street vendors where the means of attaining the feathers are deplorable.
Begging Street Children: This is probably the hardest problem to deal with in India. No matter where you go you will see beggars of all ages and they will deliberately try and pull on your heartstrings by using small babies and children to beg for money. However you should never give money to the children on the streets. Many of them are working for large organized crime bosses and do not get to keep a single rupee. It is very hard to say no to them, and they aren’t lying to you- they are starving and in need, but giving them money on the street is not the way to help them. If you would like to give something I suggest wrapped packaged food like candies or crackers because they really do need food and they can eat it right there and do not have to worry about bringing it back to the mob bosses. I would also suggest items like coloring books or pens, but I suggest you be very careful with any “high-worth” item like pens or candies, because you may get mobbed by children. I experienced first hand giving out candies and getting attacked by so many children that I had scratches up and down my arms and had to drop the candies, which they then descended upon kicking and screaming. If you would like to give something while you are physically there I suggest finding a Mother Theresa Orphanage that are all over the country and are very high quality and uncorrupted and donating there to avoid the mob rush scene that happens on the street. I also suggest if you really want to help the best way to do so is with larger charity organizations like UNICEF who can make sure the money goes to the right, uncorrupted places and can really make a difference in millions of children’s lives.