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Environment

India's slum tours: eye-opener, exploitation - or both?

One of Asia's biggest slums in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai is becoming a tourist destination. Though tour operators say they help dispel myths about slum life, some residents see them as exploitative.

Children playing in the Dharavi slum

For a small fee, tourists can see Indian poverty up close

Thousands of people move each month from villages and small towns to India's financial and film capital in search of the great Mumbai dream. But grinding poverty and a lack of affordable housing in the western Indian city has led to sprawling shanty towns.

One of the largest is Dharavi, home to an estimated one million people and better known as the setting for the Academy Award-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire."

Now, British-run Reality Tours has begun offering tourists a tour through Dharavi's teeming lanes.

For 6 euros ($8), tourists are picked up at their hotel in a private bus and taken to Dharavi. They are asked to follow several rules, including a photography ban and behavioral guidelines.

The rooftops of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.

About a million residents live in Dharavi

"There will be some smoky and smelly places, so don't catch your nose or make faces," Reality Tours guide Sunil Chettina said. "If you do that, people will feel insulted."

Ambitious plans

With an estimated 62 million people living in India's slums, the central government has set out an ambitious plan to be slum-free by 2014. Yet until that happens, tourism operators like Reality Tours are seizing the opportunity to show foreign backpackers around Dharavi.

During the peak tourist season between December and February, up to 30 tourists visit the slum each day. And plenty of famous visitors have walked through the crowded lanes as well, including Prince Charles and former US President Bill Clinton.

For one visitor, the experience was a shock to the senses. A thick cloud of industrial dust rose from nearby workshops, the smell of fresh papadums filled the air, and young boys played a video game as a raggedy goat watched closely.

A bakery in Dharavi

Tour photography was banned after residents said they felt exploited

During the tour, the group was invited inside the house of slum resident Afaquer Nasir. The 29-year-old computer technician lives in a tiny concrete room with his wife and two children. Depending on the time of day, the cramped space is transformed into a kitchen, workroom or bedroom.

Nasir said he wanted foreigners to see that despite the limited space, life in Dharavi is enjoyable.

"We stay in a slum but we have our religion, our culture and our tradition," he said. "We always stay together and we have a very good sense of community. If there is a neighbor who has a problem or a festival to celebrate, we do it with them.”

The tour group visited a dark shed where workers make plastic molds with heavy steel machinery. Workers didn't wear gloves, closed shoes or masks, and sparks flew past their faces.

"You said these workers were paid 100 Rupees a day - is this a good job?" British tourist Kathryn Hadley asked. 100 rupees amounts to about 1.50 euros.

"No, I don't think so,” tour guide Sunil Chettina answered.

Workers at a textile factory in Dharavi.

Most of the tour proceeds go to local programs

Hadley said that going on the slum tour changed her feelings about Dharavi. Before her visit, she assumed the slum was a dirty, violent place. Afterward, she felt differently.

"It was all very positive, everyone was working really hard, and I've come back feeling really happy," she said. "My only issue is how people perceive (the tourism), but the impression I got was that they were quite happy to have us there, and it was the highlight of their day to shake a white person's hand."

Opposition to slum tourism

Most of the money made from the slum tour goes directly to locals. Non-governmental organizations receive 80 percent of the profits and in 2009, Reality Tours established the charity Reality Cares to oversee an education center and kindergarten.

But despite these donations, some people want slum tourism to stop. Jockin Arputham, the Mumbai president of the NGO Shack/Slum Dwellers International, is one of them.

A man makes plastic molds in Dharavi.

Tours try to show the industry in the slum

"People are upset with this because those who are coming there have no connection with Dharavi," Arputham said. "Therefore it is a kind of exploitation that I am opposed to. This kind of tourism is not fair to the people of Dharavi."

Residents have regularly asked Reality Tours to leave Dharavi, tour guide Sunil Chettina said. Yet Reality Tours defends its concept.

"They think I am doing something wrong and that I am trying to show the poor side of Bombay," Chettina said. "I make them understand that ... white people have bad thinking about slums and I'm just trying to show them what a slum is."

Some tourists need to see the slum before they are willing to donate money, and it can change their perceptions, a Reality Tours spokesman said.

"Sometimes they go, 'Wow that was a real, sometimes life-changing experience. A really humbling experience,'" said Chris Way, the British co-founder of Reality Tours. "It is difficult to get that from seeing it on TV or listening on the radio."

Way started the tours in 2006 after drawing inspiration from a favela tour in Rio de Janeiro. He tried to improve on the concept by revealing the intricacies of Mumbai slum life, with a focus on local industry. Initially, tourists could take photos but after several complaints, Reality Tours decided to ban the practice.

Jockin Arputham, president of the NGO Shack/Slum Dwellers International

Advocates like Jockin Arputham oppose the tours

'Poverty pornography'

Slum tourism can be a good first step toward engaging with poor people, but tourists need to move beyond surface interactions, Indian photographer Akshay Mahajan said.

Mahajan has been on a Dharavi tour and photographed the slum's industry. He said the media is fueling some tourists' desires to go to the slums and gawk through supplying pictures of malnourished children playing in filthy surroundings, without providing any real insight into their situation.

He described this photography as "poverty pornography."

"Poverty porn is easy and that's why it troubles me," he said. "You could easily dig deeper to find the real story but no one does that because the surface is colorful enough to satiate. I have shot images like that before and in some cases they are important but there are other stories that are ignored because these are the only stories that get out."

Together with fellow photographer Kapil Das, he has set up the Blind Boys website to offer different visual stories about South Asia. The blog displays a confronting set of images about Filipino garbage collectors. They hope this type of work will counterbalance poverty pornography.

"I am not saying 'Do not shoot Dharavi,' but sometimes the tabloidization of it peeves me," Mahajan said.

"It is not the most hygienic place, it may not be the most ideal place to live, it might not be ideally first-world, but it is not a place of sorrow."

Author: Michael Atkin
Editor: Amanda Price/Anke Rasper (jen)

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