Young, sick infants are carted around in polystyrene boxes and produced to extract money from sympathetic tourists. This South Mumbai scam is perpetrated right under the noses of the local police
Having just returned from my third visit to India in 28 years, I continue to be outraged at the failure of the Mumbai authorities to address the abuse of children as instruments of begging, in the Gateway of India tourist area.
Whilst the organised gangs of mutilated children are well documented and still prevalent in the area, preying on the pity of tourists, the 'mother-and-sick-infant' scam is out of control and needs immediate attention by the local authorities. The frequent grabbing of tourists by mothers with infants through taxi windows is an accepted and daunting experience throughout India and, in many cases, is a genuine plea for help.
Having returned from a business trip to Dubai, I was approached by a young girl (approximately 15-16 years old) with a small infant less than two months old on her arm. I had seen the same girl two weeks earlier carrying a different and slightly older child. She claimed the sickly two-month-old was her sister and that her mother was currently in hospital suffering from diabetes and too ill to breastfeed her daughter. She pleaded for canned powdered milk for her sister and a small bag of rice for her other brothers and sisters.
Aware that this was almost certainly a deception, I refused, although the sight of the sick infant, barely the size of my hand, was distressing and weighed heavily on my conscience.
The girl followed me around for four hours, waiting outside shops until I reappeared, clearly assessing that, in the end, perseverance would lead to a successful outcome. I relented and offered her money, feeling that if the child received just a small portion of the contribution, at least some good would have been achieved. The girl refused my offering and said she only wanted milk and rice that could be bought from any one of a number of shops on the streets behind the Taj Mahal hotel.
This caught me off-guard and made me think: maybe, just maybe, the case was genuine. The girl suggested I accompany her to the store and purchase the produce with her, indicating that the items could be opened in my presence. I agreed and bought the items from the storekeeper, saying that opening the goods in front of me was unnecessary. I parted with just under Rs 500 (a fairly insignificant contribution, but more than my original monetary offering), a sense of goodwill and expressions of gratitude from the girl.
When I returned and recounted my experiences to a local friend, he quickly outlined the scam for me and the fact that these girls make an estimated
US$ 300 every month. What's more, the storekeepers play a major part in the scam, providing over 50% of the produce value in rupees to the girl upon return of the goods.
I hate deception and, more importantly, the fact that very little, if any, of the money will be used to feed the sick infant.
I returned to the area later that day and, surprisingly, observed the same sickly child in the arms of another girl sitting on the dirty sidewalk. She was slightly younger than the girl who had so successfully applied her trade. I approached this girl and expressed my anger at her using the child in the scam. I told her the child needed medical treatment. To my shock and horror, a second child, a twin, was produced from one of two sealed polystyrene boxes on the pavement, looking just as sickly as the first. When the box was opened, dozens of flies descended upon the listless child. On closer inspection, I saw that the boxes had four minute keyhole punctures for ventilation -- totally inadequate, especially on a day when the temperature was above 30 degrees C.
Meanwhile, my emotive discussions had attracted quite a crowd that confirmed that this truly was the mother and that she was an innocent party to the ploy. They said that the 'first' girl had intimidated the mother for use of her child, although, most probably, she had received some benefit for the 'transaction'. The husband arrived and on hearing about the incident set off angrily to find the girl who was known to frequent the area around the Gateway of India. Within five minutes she appeared, displaying a more petulant attitude to the one I had witnessed earlier that day. When I confronted her the girl suddenly appeared mortified and indicated to her accomplice, another girl I had seen carrying a child in the streets, to return my money. I refused and said that the money belonged to the child and that I wanted her to give it to the mother. She threw the money on the road and departed. I gave it to the 'father' in the vague hope that the twins would see some benefit. An hour later, I observed the girl accomplice with a different child begging from two newly-arrived tourists at a hotel in the main shopping area.
I hope I'm not sounding too self-righteous. And I do appreciate that each person must derive a means to survive in this harsh and tough city. However, the use of frighteningly young infants is a crime that the authorities must address. I have been told that it was not my place to be involved. But I did confront the three storekeepers who, I was informed, were major players in the scam. All of them denied their involvement, even the man who sold us the milk and rice.
Upon my return to Australia I was informed by an Indian friend who had visited India two months earlier that she had been deceived by the same milk-and-rice child scam!