Visit to Dharavi challenges observer attitude and fosters engagement
MUMBAI ― The word slum may conjure up some unpleasant or even dreadful images in a tourist’s mind. Chances are that one would most likely find the term on a page about safety in the back of the guidebook than in the list of attractions.
But in Mumbai, that preconceived notion is destroyed by a novel tour established by an expatriate and a local. Thanks to them, visitors to the country’s business and entertainment hub have a way to engage with the lives in the slum ― if they come with the right mindset.
Reality Tours and Travel, founded by Chris Way and Krishna Poojari in 2006, has taken hundreds of tourists through the slums of Dharavi, once upon a time Asia’s largest slum and world-renowned after the runaway success of the 2009 film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Making people’s daily lives a commercial tourist product has not settled well with everyone, here or abroad, as some see it as a voyeuristic exercise disrespectful to the workers and residents, likening it to people walking through a zoo. Others have even derided it as “poverty porn.”
People may step into these unpaved and littered dirt roads as aliens with sinister curiosity. Before the tour, a fellow visitor from Canada in this reporter’s group warned herself out loud: “Ready for a culture shock.”
By the time the tour was finished, however, the collective impression was to the contrary. Counter to expectations of anarchist chaos, Dharavi functioned with formidable work ethic and enviable sense of community. Residents went through their daily routine in one-room workshops, living quarters and alleyways ― looking content. Those expecting to witness squalor from a UNICEF fundraiser commercial or a gunfight from the aforementioned movie would be totally disappointed by the slum and its air of “normality.”
As this reporter passed by with a guide and three other foreigners, children attempted their best “Hello” and “How are you” with disarming smiles, sometimes cheerfully chasing after the alien passer-bys. Younger laborers looked on curiously, switching the roles of the observer and the observed momentarily but soon started joking around using body language. Adults stayed more cautious, in spite of the familiar face of Ganesh, the tour guide.
Surprisingly, Dharavi bustles with vibrant industries, albeit fragmented. The annual turnover from the area of approximately 200 acres exceeds $665 million, according to the tour operator.
Glimpses from the four-hour stroll through the symbolic Mumbaiker slum were processed animal skin, used paint cans and crunchy papadums instead of guns, knives and drugs. Luxury-brand leather bags were sewn. Plastic goods from all over the world were being melted and recycled in the hands of Indian men, ending up as colorful small pellets. The local snacks from these humble bakeries were being packed to be shipped to supermarkets in London, New York or anywhere else.
People here still face numerous problems, like the low level of income, education and hygiene among others. Laborers work with carcinogenic substances everyday for a lifetime; they seemed oblivious, however. Paint cans, which are also recycled here, were being burnt ― inside ― to eliminate residue. Access to tap water, through thin pipelines that cover the entire slum, is available less than an hour a day. Following the token phrase of charity organizations, most people earn less than $2 a day here. Even a bit of basic research would reveal more troubles.
Despite its many faults, Dharavi is still an invaluable home to up to 1 million people from all parts of the Indian subcontinent; the government’s demolition and reconstruction plans continue to be thwarted by the residents’ opposition and that of supporters alike. It is one of the few inexpensive housing areas left in the heart of Mumbai, and even after getting white-collar jobs outside, young people choose to remain in the maze-like habitat.
Even before the plane lands on the runway of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, tourists are already introduced to the countless iron-roofed concrete boxes that surround the premise and continue into the horizon. The sense of economic inequality is unavoidable from inside a cab, on foot or in rickshaws. Instead of visiting one heritage site after another, of which there is no shortage in India, this temporary immersion course in Dharavi is too great a chance to skip.
More credit to Reality’s no-camera policy, which enabled the visitors to observe more closely, to engage with the surroundings, to ask questions and most of all to reflect.
By the end of the tour, the guide and the entourage attended an English class and a nursery, both funded by the proceeds from the company. Students’ eyes shone, while they intently formed simple sentences to introduce themselves.
The argument against such slum tours will continue, but the glimpses of hope in those children’s faces were worth more than seeing any tourist site.
Fees for the tours start from 500 Indian rupees per person. Visit www.realitytoursandtravel.com for more information.