This happened when I was on the Jeddah–Mumbai sector some time in 1987/88. And it was way before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre. Terrorism had not shown its ugly face on airline flights yet. The atmosphere in flights used to be very friendly. I used to follow a routine in all my flights which I continued till my retirement in 1998 . After reaching the designated altitude and settling down for some time, I would hand over the controls to my co-pilot and take a walk in the aircraft. I would go right up to the tail section to chit chat with the passengers and the crew. This kept the cabin crew on their toes and the passengers happy.
On this particular flight, when I reached the tail section I found a very strange group of people. They were really odd. Some of them were maimed, some looked polio afflicted or with some deformity. They all were dressed very poorly. They did not look like “Gulf returnees”. On seeing such a crowd I asked the In-flight Supervisor if these people had asked for help on landing. Surprisingly the answer was ’No’. A normal passenger in such a condition would certainly ask for a wheelchair. This looked very odd to me. I thought I must investigate.
After some time, I went back again to the tail section and asked the Purser about the group.He told me that the group had two persons looking after them. I met these two guys and asked them where these came from. On seeing me in uniform they were reluctant to talk to me. When I persisted one of them said that they were from Eastern Uttar Pradesh in North India. I told them that I had also stayed in that part of our country for some time when I was posted at the Air force Station in Gorakhpur. One of them happened to be from Gorakhpur. After exchanging notes on Gorakhpur, they duo was convinced that I was telling the truth. Then I asked them if they would like to see the cockpit. Of course, they were keen. I took both of them to the front and showed the cockpit and explained to them how a plane is flown. By now they were very much at home with me. Seeing an opening, I asked them what they did for a living. Lo and behold, the whole story came tumbling out. And it was mind boggling.
Their group consisted of 25 or 30 people, all Muslim beggars from Eastern UP. They were taken to Jeddah for Umrah, the pilgrimage before the start of the month of Ramadan, by their Bade Chacha (Big Uncle or Boss) who was sitting in the front row. They all were going back after ‘Ramadan’ and the Id celebrations. There was no problem about getting passports and other clearances as they were on a pilgrimage. At Jeddah they stayed in a cheap rest house or Musafirkhana. Their only job in Jeddah was to beg in front different mosques in the city. At the end of the day, the money that was collected would be handed over to the Bade Chacha. On returning to India, each beggar would be given INR 10,000 , a kind of money an Indian beggar could not dream of.
The Bade Chacha or “boss” would approach Air India through his travel agent for a “group booking” asking for the cheapest rate, which he would get. After reaching Jeddah, he would accommodate the group in the cheapest ‘Musafirkhana’. As there is no big rush during Umrah, he would have no problem getting cheap accommodation. Food for all these people would come from different mosques, where food is given to anyone who approaches before sunrise and after the sunset. Expenses on food during the day were nil as all of the beggars were fasting. During Ramadan, local Arabs like to dole out big amounts to the needy and poor each day after fasting time. After Ramadan, there would be Id celebrations where the beggars would earn even more. After the long chat I asked the duo to introduce me to their Bade Chacha at Mumbai.
After reaching Mumbai, I found the duo with their Bade Chacha waiting for their checked-in baggage. i met the boss. He looked a very nice and docile man. When I asked him about his activities, he told me that he was doing all this only to help poor people. I appreciated his good deed and parted.
It seemed to be great business model in which every party became the winner. The Muslim beggar got a decent sum, he got to perform a pilgrimage and enjoyed free lodging and food during his stay in the holy land. The Arab alms giver gained merit and the Bade Chacha earned up to Rs. 10 to 12 lakhs every year, which in the 1980s, was a princely sum.
Impressed with this win win business model, I wrote an article in a Marathi newspaper which evoked considerable interest. But soon I discovered that there was more to the story! After about a month when I was going on a flight, one of the Immigration officers came to me and said that he had read my article and wanted to talk about that because he knew more about Bade Chacha’s begging business.
That was the time when the Indian economy had not opened up. Gadgets like washing machines, VCR’s, TV’s were very much in demand, and high priced. The travel agent who booked the beggars’ group would bring in such gadgets against the names of the beggars as “unaccompanied baggage” after the group had returned. The poor beggar passenger would not know that he had unaccompanied baggage and that it was being collected by the Bade Chacha for sale!
The Customs rule was that passengers could get such stuff into the country within three months of their arrival. Therefore, very thing was legal. Since there was a ready market for such goods Bade Chache would mint money in addition to getting the bulk of what the beggars collected from rich Arabs for a month. In this business of keeping everybody happy, the Bade Chacha would share the booty with travel agent and the Customs officials as well.