Raji was begging on the ghats of Varanasi until six months ago. She caught the attention of a team member of a social enterprise working with beggars who instead of doing a charitable donation which is the norm, invested ₹500 , asked her to buy some flowers from the wholesale market, and gave her the confidence to sell it to devotees.

She began selling flowers after a couple of days, in the first hour of selling flowers she earned ₹240 and in a couple of weeks earned nearly ₹8,000. Now she is known as Phoolwali aunty (flower-seller lady) in the community and has stopped begging.

According to government data, there are around 400,000 beggars in India. Beggars can use the money they receive from charity and start an enterprise.

So what we need is a change in mindset from begging to becoming entrepreneurial by inculcating the confidence, dignity of labour, and market linkages for beggars through alternative models.

In the Phoolwali aunty example, it was the Kashi Viswanath temple and the need for flowers for devotees going to the temple. That is the first step towards using local-focused venturing as an approach to making India begging-free.

Sustainable action

We need to complement the local problem identification with multiple actions that changes the ecosystem around the region to make it conducive for sustaining entrepreneurial action. First, this needs some core service or product-making skills which need to be identified specifically for the local context. This could range from pooja services for temples to pickles to handicrafts to e-commerce delivery. One could start with those products/services that require low capital investment (say, ₹500-5,000).

Second, there needs to be an intermediary organisation in the form of a for-profit social enterprise, that needs to engage with the beggars’ community in the local area for a sustained period to build their trust and then engage in a hand-holding process. For example, there are for-profit social enterprises such as Beggars Corporation which have engaged in such a process by building confidence, skilling and even investing in beggars money raised from social impact investors.

Third, it is important to create local spaces where the beggars’ community can come together to have discussions on local problems and potential solutions. This will give them agency and ownership over the solutions motivating them to stay away from begging.

Fourth, the development of India Stack and open networks like ONDC are empowering micro-entrepreneurship through easier market access. This will open up possibilities for a group of beggars-turned-entrepreneurs to be selling locally-sourced locally-made products with some training and support on digital skills.

Finally, while hand-holding by an intermediary organisation like a for-profit social enterprise is needed at the beginning, there should also be a planned exit for this hand-holding.

The process of transforming beggars into entrepreneurs will be aided by two innate attitudes of beggars. First is their perseverance and second, their ability to do work without expectations.

This has meant that they have the innate ability to make do with resources which could be ₹100 on a normal day or ₹500 on a festive day. This has also equipped them to be content with different levels of financial returns, preparing them to deal with the ups and downs of an entrepreneurship journey.

The core message for realizing the agenda for a begging-free India would be ‘Don’t donate, Invest!’.

The writer is Associate Professor, Strathclyde Business School, United Kingdom

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