Dharavi Through A Peephole

on Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Brigida Viggiano takes a paid tour of Asia’s largest slum and changes her mind about slum tourism

The first time I heard about slum tours in Mumbai, I wasn’t shocked. I was already aware of the global trend of focussing on the grim underbelly of cultures: guided walks through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the shanty towns of South Africa and the garbage dumps of Mexico. A stroll through the claustrophobic gullies of Dharavi was thus par for the course for New Age tourism.
The Dharavi walk is the brainchild of 33-year-old Britisher Chris Way who, along with his Indian business partner Krishna Poojari, founded Reality Tours and Travel in 2006. Since slum tours are largely about spectacularisation, the process by which detached viewers participate vicariously in a crisis or event, maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the Reality Tours and Travel logo reminded me of Big Brother’s eye.
I embarked on the tour with mixed feelings: curiosity on the one hand and embarrassment on the other for being part of a group I had always viewed as heartlessly voyeuristic. To escape the burden of guilt, I told myself that I was doing it only to confirm my beliefs through experience, and that I would be in a better position subsequently to plead against slum tourism.
The four-hour trek doesn’t come cheap. Tourists shell out Rs 800 (including the cost of the airconditioned car which transports you to the slum), but you can do an abridged version for Rs 400. Our tour guide Girish, a youngster who grew up in a slum himself, first took us on a one-hour
tour of the red-light area, the openair laundry of Dhobi Ghat and other places on the way to Dharavi. Finally we reached the slum itself, 432 acres of squalor that house almost a million residents. Immediately we were in another world, a world that most Mumbaikars are afraid to enter. It was a city within the city.
The tour began from 13th Compound, one of the busiest neighbourhoods of Dharavi where people work 12 to 14 hours a day recycling plastic, cartons and other kinds of refuse. Then we walked though the leather-tanning area, where we couldn’t stand for more than a few seconds because of the noxious smoke. Our guide showed us the bakery and the papad-making area, explaining that it wasn’t unusual to get products made by Dharavi dwellers served in restaurants all over Mumbai.
We passed Hindu altar shapers, who are mainly Muslims, a triumph to India’s poster secularism. “This is one of the most evident signs of the sense of community that exists in the area,’’ said Girish. We then moved to the residential area, walking through alleys so narrow that they didn’t admit even a sunbeam. The tour ended after a couple of hours in the clay-potting area, where potters still fashion pots by traditional methods.
There were two figures that Girish kept repeating during the
tour: 10,000, which is the number of small-scale industries operating in Dharavi, and USD 665 million, which is the annual turnover Dharavi’s residents are estimated to generate. What thrilled me the most, personally, was that I could not find even one person who wasn’t working: the slum dwellers were so engrossed that most failed to even notice that a group of foreign tourists was in their midst. Dharavi put paid to the insensitive upper-class perception of the poor as lazy blokes who beg for a living.
So, is slum tourism not a voyeuristic attempt to expose third world poverty and the poor after all? “If we wanted to show pover
ty, we wouldn’t go to Dharavi. What we do want to show is how, despite the poverty, these people are able to be so productive,’’ said Chris Way when I met him after the tour. The aim of such tours, as stated on the company website, is to “break down the negative image of Dharavi and its residents’’; to generate understanding, not pity. And this is possible only by exposing the unknown reality and continuously challenging stereotypes about the poor.
Ethel D’Souza, manager of Lok Seva Sangani, which has been working in slum areas for over 30 years, believes that slum tourism is a matter of perspective. I asked her whether she thought her slumdwellers would have been offended by tourists walking around their houses. Her answer was rather surprising: “Sometimes people come with us to see what a slum means and how we work to improve living conditions. Slum-dwellers are already used to and, indeed, even welcome visitors, since they want them to understand how things have changed over the last few years. They want to shed the label of ‘slum-dweller’ or rather the negative connotation it has.’’
With India becoming an important player on the global scene, perhaps it’s important for foreigners to see the other side of the picture: the badly paid lower-end workforce which is a prime part of the much rah-rahed Indian economy. For my part, I realised that there’s much more to India than its super-wealthy elite, plush hotels and fancy restaurants. Invisible India deserves far more international exposure than it gets; and slum tourism isn’t such a bad thing after all. TNN