Slum tourism

For many years I’ve been a big fan of Indian literature. Some of my very favourite novels are by Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai. The slums of India often feature in these books and I’ve long been fascinated by the microcosmic worlds of these cities-within-cities.

I also loved the non-fiction book Behind the beautiful forevers, about life in a slum near Mumbai airport, and went to see the David Hare play based on the book at London’s National Theatre.

So when I knew we were coming to Mumbai I was very excited by the possibility of seeing the Dharavi slum on an organised tour. Slum tourism isn’t new – it was popular way back in Victorian London – but it’s experienced a resurgence over the past 10 years, in part due to the popularity of films such as Slumdog Millionaire. It’s obviously controversial and has the potential to facilitate exploitation and vulgar voyeurism. It also has the power to generate money for slum communities, change Western perceptions of poverty and raise awareness which may encourage governments to improve conditions. The arguments for and against it are summarised pretty well here.

But what do the inhabitants think? The same article looks at a 2012 study which aimed to find out what slum residents think about the practice. It found that there were mixed opinions but that over two thirds of residents involved in the study felt that there were positive aspects of slum tourism that could enhance living conditions.

I decided I would go, if two conditions were met:

  1. A substantial proportion of the profits from the tour company are fed back into the slum community.
  2. The tour has a focus that isn’t “gawking at poor people”.

I found Reality Tours & Travel which seemed to meet the criteria:

  • 80% of profits go back into the Dharavi community via their sister-NGO Reality Gives.
  • The tour focuses on the business activities carried out by its 1 million inhabitants, which create an annual turnover of $US 665 million.
  • No photography is allowed.

And so, we went. My thoughts on the experience to come in the next post.

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