Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where are the beggars?

Time was when you just had to stop at a traffic light, and a hoard of beggars would miraculously materialise. Some would be little kids in raggedy clothes informing you that they hadn’t eaten for two days, while others would be older men and women telling you that their particular god would bless you if you parted with a few coins. There would be the usual quota of women clutching babies and thrusting an empty feeding bottle onto your face, and the boys with misshapen or missing limbs.

Today when you stop at a traffic light, you have paperbacks thrust at you and boxes of tissue paper. Women selling gajaras and men with cheap Chinese toys. You made the mistake of stepping out without an umbrella – no problem, those rainbow coloured things with wooden handles cost just Rs. 200. Late for a date with your hot girlfriend – just pick up a bunch of roses at the next traffic light and tell her you got delayed at the florist.

Cheap Chinese imports seem to have spawned an entire generation of merchants – it is as now as difficult to spot a beggar as it once was to avoid them.

You know you should be rejoicing – isn’t this the India you always dreamt about? A India where everyone was gainfully employed? Where there was no hunger and everybody could afford to send their kids to school? It does seem to.

But the skeptic in you refuses to accept what your eyes can see. Sure, people are selling things at traffic lights instead of begging, but is commerce really edging out poverty, or is this just a new form of poverty?

Begging, some people always maintained, was a very well organised business venture. The beggars you saw were merely the front office. The brains behind the venture were the people who acquired the beggars, taught them their lines, and actually deployed them exactly where they were likely to be most successful. It was the people behind the venture who kept the daily takings, but in return for that, but it was not a bad deal for the beggars because in return for their labour, they were given food and shelter.

If that were indeed the case, then it is probable that the brains behind the 'begging business' realized that the margins were much higher in retailing than in begging, and so shifted to that. If that were the case, the lot of the beggars has not changed - only their job description has. The paucity of beggars, in that case, indicates nothing at all.

Even if you choose to be optimistic, and say that at least some of the new breed of itinerant merchants are self employed, the question still remains - "How much profit are they really making and how much of it are they getting to keep?" It is unlikely that any of them could have had the initial capital to invest in stock, so they must either be selling goods on behalf of someone else for a small commission, or they must have taken a loan from a moneylender.

Given the immense pool of labour available, it is unlikely that the commission on a Chinese toy that costs Rs. 10 would be more than fifty paise - given the volume of sales, that amount would be just about enough to ensure survival in the city.

Moneylenders always charge usurious rates - rates so high the person is never able to pay back fully, but not enough to force the person to abandon the business totally.

Whether they are working for a commission, or whether they owe their stock, the new breed of salesmen and entrepreneurs could not be doing very much more than just surviving.

You do not see too many beggars these days, but the lives of the people who were earlier forced to beg to survive cannot be much better today than it was a few years back.

But there is still hope. When you live on charity, you get used to it and don’t really try to pull yourself out of your dependence on it. But when you know you are producing value, you strive to produce more, in the hope of someday being able to better your lot.

I am not sure if I see it happening in the near future or not, but someday, perhaps people would start lending money to the new breed of merchants are reasonable rates, and they would be able to gradually pull themselves out of poverty.

The beggars have morphed into salesmen. Soon they could be entrepreneurs.


Bubbly Bala said...

The analysis as usual is very convincing and bears your stamp. An idea like this needs to be analysed step by step which I feel you havent done in this one. But it cannot take away from the fact that you have been observant enough to notice the diminishing beggars at traffic lights and the corresponding increase in folks selling all sorts of stuff. And also tried to reason out why it could be so.
I like your concluding line "The beggars have morphed into salesmen. Soon they could be entrepreneurs" So much optimism in that statement.
I will sleep over it and post any other thought that comes to my mind.

Natasha said...

The one thing I know I can always get from you is an honest opinion when I ask for it!
I thought I was going into too much detail here - after all, this is a blog post, and not a newspaper article - but after reading your comment, I have fleshed out the analysis a little more.
Let me know what you think of this.


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