Hello pen!


Today, we have visited Jhunjhunu, the capital of the local district in Shekhawati. As in most cities in the regions, there are quite a few havelis to visit and we were quickly havelied out, so we started to wander around the city. It was quite pleasant, not that the city is particularly pretty or of much interest, but rather because – for once – kids were just kids.

she-school-kids.jpg In most parts of Rajasthan, as soon as we would start wander around, we would be swarmed with children whose usual greeting would be “Hello pen!”, “Hello, gimme one rupee” (tariffs would change in touristy spots) or “Hello photo” (in exchange for money). When they are young, they usually ask for small coins, lollies, chocolate or pens. Generally older kids and young teenagers are more subtle; they would attempt a two-minute conversation before asking for something; sometimes tellng you that they collect foreign coins – to later exchange them for foreign notes, then rupees.

As they grow older, they would be more akin to touts and would try to take you to their uncle‘s shop or restaurant and receive commission in exchange – generally about 10%. Some guest houses pay up to 200 rupees (= 4 euros or AUD 6) when someone brings in a tourist. [Uncle in India also refers to family friends or extended family – there are many words for uncle in Hindi depending on the nature of relationship.]

These children are far from being naive – a lot of the older ones pick up languages from their conversations with foreigners and it is not unusual to hear them switch between English, French and Japanese with ease. Even in a small village that we thought was off the beaten path, we heard a young five-year old say “Hello one pen” then try his luck in French with “Monsieur bonbon” – he would hardly know any other word in English or French.

agr-boys-in-class.jpg The reason for this of course does not come the kids but from us – tourists. We have seen people distributing pens and lollies as they were getting out of their air-conditioned bus, young travellers trading chocolate and bonbons for better photo opportunities, giving rupees away because the child is “so cute” and a few rupees are even not worth a dollar, or simply to get rid of them. A lot of tourists see this as simply annoying, but others think they are actually helping these children. Unfortunately, they are not.

We have discussed this with our host who has run a guesthouse in Shekhawati for over 20 years. Most of these kids are not street kids – a lot of them do have parents, and all of them should be at school. But when a child can make up to $10 an hour – far more than their parent, it is hard for some families to resist the temptation. In 2003, the average yearly income in India was only $500. We’ve been told that this is a serious problem that schools face in places frequently visited by tourists: some parents refuse to send their children to school. In doing so, of course they deny an opportunity for their children to have an education, but they also become financially dependent on tourists.

Parents are not always responsible, some kids drop out of school because they think they get more out of tourists than they do from school. Some kids will hang out with tourists to make some money for themselves, get invited to the movies or be offered ice cream. How can a 12-year old resist? It makes it hard for them to see the value in going to school.

This would not happen if so many tourists did not so readily give money, not only does this encourage kids to beg but it also hinders the efforts of local communities and organisations to develop responsible tourism. But money is not only the problem. Chocolate and lollies are also bad for kids, especially in rural areas where access to a dentist and basic necessities for oral hygiene are hard to find. As for pens, they are rarely needed and only encourage kids to beg further. Unfortunately, some kids can become aggressive, especially teenagers… We’ve heard that some kids insult tourists or even throw stones at them when they don’t get what they want.