The baby milk scam is one which we observed outside the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala and a little bit of googling established that this is one of the main places where tourists have seen this particular technique in operation. It’s not exclusively an Indian idea – others have reported it in other parts of the region or in the Far East, proving conclusively that there’s always a market for a really effective and professional scam. I can’t help but almost admire this one.
The area around the Dalai Lama’s temple has a lot of beggars and they have a particularly sneaky scam that they work on soft-hearted foreigners. They are unlikely to bother you on the way in, preferring instead to zoom in on people who are feeling ever so slightly holy and buzzing from their recent experience. These people are much more likely to be feeling generous and are more likely to feel bad about brushing away a beggar. Plagues of rat-like girls clutching dirty bundles of rags that may or may not contain small babies plea for baby milk. Most of these girls are clearly too young to be mothers. The babies – if indeed they are babies – are unlikely to be theirs.
"Not money, madam, milk for baby. Baby hungry, come shop, buy baby milk". They’ve practiced the lines time and time again, schooled in delivering the right degree of sadness to tug at the heartstrings. In me they picked the wrong mug – I have no sympathy for the girls and not one iota of maternal instincts. They are wasting their time trying to scam me on this one.
This is a particularly cunning and clever scam since it takes advantage of some basic aspects of human nature. Firstly there’s the feeling of "How can I be harsh outside a temple when I’m given an opportunity to do a small good?" Secondly there’s the tendency for many people to be more sympathetic to a dumb infant (or in my case a dog or cat) than to a grown adult. And thirdly it relies on the exploitation of embarrassment.
The reason it’s clever is that this scam is a sophisticated form of up-selling. Many of us would put our hands in our pockets for a small donation outside a temple but these girls don’t want money at least not in the direct sense. If you get hooked by this scam, you’ll get fleeced for tens of dollars or pounds. Take a look at the girls; they are not local. They don’t look like the local people, they don’t dress like them, their faces are a completely different shape, colour and structure than the local people. No mother gets on a bus and travels hundreds of miles into the Himalaya just to scrounge a few rupees. These girls are shipped in from the plains by their employers who train them, give them a baby to hold, or a bundle of rags that looks like a baby, and then drop them off to beg.
The unwary tourist thinks they’ll get away with spending maybe 100 rupees (about £1.20 at that time) after all, how much can milk cost? But they won’t got to the nearest or cheapest shop. The girl will lead you to a shop where the shopkeeper (who is in on the scam) pulls out a tub (or three) of very expensive powdered baby formula. This baby – the one whose mother is too poor to feed him – has expensive tastes. She might want you to believe she’s so malnourished that she has no milk to offer him, but baby is on the Rolls Royce of over-priced formula. The scam relies on the donor being too embarrassed to make a fuss. This is why it works well with Brits – we don’t do fuss and we hate to be embarrassed. People don’t want to lose ‘face’ – even if it is in front of a conman shop-keeper and a professional beggar. They don’t want to seem mean or rude and with the shopkeeper watching them, the unwary tourist parts with a couple of thousand rupees. The shopkeeper gets the money, the girl gets the milk and then returns later to give back the milk in return for a cut of the proceeds of the sale of the ridiculously over-priced product.
If you want to help poor people in India, don’t give to these girls. If they’re hanging around a temple, then please give your money to the temple or to local charities who can manage it properly. You may say "What harm does it do? It’s my money, if I want to give it to the babies, where’s the problem?" Just ask yourself if that’s a real baby, and if it is, ask yourself why it is that you never see the baby cry and why the babies rarely even open their eyes. Ask yourself if the girl is behaving in a ‘maternal’ way or just lugging the baby around like so much disposable luggage. Some of these babies are drugged up to stay asleep because that way the cause no trouble to their young ‘minders’. You think you’re helping the baby – the scam relies on that belief - but more likely you’ll just encourage people to continue this scam, to buy or steal babies from mothers who cannot afford to keep them, and to hook the babies on cheap drugs. You really don’t want to stop and think about ‘what next’ for a baby raised on opiates and discarded when it gets too big to be carried around.