India is one of the countries that hardly ever meets the expectations of a traveler. It either exceeds or fails to meet them. Why? The country is so diverse and difficult to understand, that it boils down to personal perception and own judgment.
There are a lot of myths and stereotypes as well. Maybe it makes it harder to evaluate the reality without any prejudice, but at the same time, if it wasn’t there, it would be difficult to even start to understand what is going on.
India is known for its disparity and many are traveling here for philanthropic reasons. Some pay big amounts to be taken to a slum and to be allowed to ‘pretend’ to be making a difference. Pretend or help? Let’s explore it a bit more. We will do so with the help of the known myths that exist and are very common among foreign volunteers.
1. People in India are so poor, they will be happy with anything you give them.
Yes, many people in India live below the poverty line. They might get one meal a day and live in unbelievably horrible conditions somewhere under a bridge. However, no matter how poor people are, they are people. Respect should be given despite their financial status or personal appearance. When giving clothing or items as a donation, all should be clean, presentable and in good working condition.
Many people are also superstitious. They do not want to wear anything off the shoulder of a stranger. They believe it carries bad luck of the previous owner. So, before you give something, ask them if they would like to accept the donation.
2. If people live in a Slum, they are poor.
“Why would one choose to live this way?” you might wonder. Well, a slum is a society. As Anjali, a 22-year-old from the Kalkaji Slum was explaining to me (see video), people have a special bond with their neighbors, they help each other, they know everyone. Many earn enough to buy property and cars. They rent it out and save money for the future while continue living a simple life. So, do you think a person who just pulled up in a private vehicle will be happy with your old socks you are trying to give them?:)
3. It is dangerous to go to a slum area.
As we mentioned above, a slum is a community. It is where people live. Their houses are usually very small and do not have doors and locks on them. Of course, if they cannot secure their belongings, do you think they will be happy with numerous visitors? I don’t think so. They will consider you a threat. However, it does not mean they will attack or intentionally harm you also.
The best way to visit is to go with someone who knows them and preferably with prior permission from the locals.
4. People, especially children are happy to be photographed.
Excited, yes. Especially children. Many would be happy to pose in from of your camera. However, the majority of locals in a slum are not thrilled with foreigners coming and recording their daily lives. “Why do white people come here to take pictures? India has so much more to offer. They do not want to show the good side of our country” – one of the slum residents had shared with me.
If you chose to take pictures, ask for permission and try not to focus on the negative aspects of locals’ lives.
5. Poor people are forced into begging by the local mafia.
This one could be true to some extent. Unfortunately, not only mafia that forces something on people. Often enough it is also an individual choice. Easy money has always tempted many across the globe. India is not an exception. They say “if there is no demand, there will be no supply”. So yes, it is best not to entertain any form of begging. There are many other ways to help the needy.
6. All NGO’s are scams
Statistics show that there are more registered NGOs than hospital beds in India. Crazy, right? Yes, of course, nothing is 100% ideal. Just like there are good and bad people, there are good and bad NGOs. It is up to you to find out which one to be associated with. There are some very transparent NGOs that are ready to share all the reports with you, introduce you to the children, elderly or whoever they are helping. They would be the ones who want volunteers to join them! Not only to give their money.
Please feel free to ask more questions about Volunteering in India!