“Dharavi is the largest slum in Asia,” our guide Jitu said, who had grown up in Dharavi. His hand moved wide to show the expanse and his words are laced with pride. This fact is no longer true, for a slum in Karachi, Pakistan* has overtaken Dharavi. But his pride made me look down at my feet enclosed in shoes to brave the overflowing gutters and mucky by-lanes of Dharavi. I was standing on a bridge near Mahim Station with Jo and her son Jed both from New Zealand along with Jitu. We would soon be heading into Dharavi for my first visit. Over the course of the week, I would come back to talk with the residents.
We walked right through a manufacturing unit where workers were building large machines used to recycle plastic. They paused to let us pass, resuming the second we were out of peripheral view. All through the industrial section of Dharavi we were greeted with polite disinterest. Istiar Ahmed who runs a bakery and makes khari (a kind of savoury puff pastry) said he didn’t mind tourists who came by. They didn’t buy anything and he didn’t try to sell them anything either. “Aate hein, jaate hein, mujhe kya pharak padta hai… They come, and they go. It makes no difference to me!” This refrain would make its appearance through my interactions with the residents of Dharavi.
Reality Tours is the pioneer of slum tours in Mumbai. They began their tours in 2006. In 2009, they set up their NGO Reality Gives to plough back 80% of their profits into the community. Most of their guides are also recruited from Dharavi. Over the last few years new players have entered the market (SlumGods, Be a Local, etc) that run on a similar model. They follow a walking route close to the one charted by Reality Tours, and promise to give back to the community and recruit local guides. But the policies differ across the companies. Reality Tours limits the number of people in a group to six, while others allow groups of ten and more. A shopkeeper told me at times there would be a long queue in the narrow lane in front of his shop – a people jam. Some tour companies strictly prohibit photography in the aim to be less intrusive while others turn a blind eye.
Further down the road we stopped to enter a shop when we heard a loud “Nahi, nahi” emanate from inside. In the dimly lit shop I could see a middled-aged man with greying hair supervising a few others. Abid Ali, a trader of Kapasi soaps, walked towards us shaking his head refusing to allow any foreigners to enter. The floor was slippery and if they fell, the police, who were waiting for any excuse to extract money, would promptly land up here. I caught him on that and stepped inside the shop since I’m a local. There has never been an untoward incident with a foreigner in his shop but he’s heard rumours from others around. Later, after a little probing, he admitted that while working he doesn’t like to be disturbed.
A family of potters at Kumbharwada claimed that around 100-200 people would come by through the day to watch them making pots. Heeru ben, the matriarch of the family said, it was almost as if they were conducting a ‘research on pottery at Kumbharwada.’ The tourists would want to click photographs but she didn’t allow it as she wasn’t always wearing good clothes and “they will take the photos back, look at me and laugh. I don’t want that!”
On that morning, there were around five groups from Reality Tours, two to three from SlumGods and Be the Local, two large groups of college students and two groups of trainees from an MNC. That meant anywhere between 70-100 visitors and guides walking around Dharavi from 10am to 12.30pm. During season, companies might run four tours through the day to cater to the growing demand; a demand fuelled by the popularity of the movie Slumdog Millionaire and Gregory David Roberts’ book Shantaram. In 2014, Reality Tours alone brought 18000 visitors into Dharavi.
I saw two women washing clothes in front of their houses and asked them about the tours and the regular stream of visitors. They looked at me, raised their eyebrows and asked which people, what tour? When I pointed to a group standing a few feet away, Sasi, probably in her early twenties, said, Oh, those Angrez. Then asked me why the Angrez kept coming everyday; didn’t they have any other work! Valli, probably in her forties, felt that it would be better if these people didn’t come. But she couldn’t complain as the others in the slum, who benefited from it, would get angry with her. Both knew nothing about the tours, or the companies and their work in Dharavi. If they had known, would that have changed their views? The next day, I chatted with a shopkeeper and his two customers who knew little about the centres set up by Reality Tours offering free classes in English, Computers and Life Skills.
Reality Tours puts back 80% of their profits into the community, Be the Local recruits tour guides from Dharavi and so does SlumGods, along with conducting dance workshops for the children of Dharavi. But there are no regulatory bodies to ensure these are not just empty promises. The tour companies recognised early on that the only way tourists were comfortable doing such tours was when given the promise of community work. That promise made tourists feel guilt-free for their intrusiveness. But with a population anywhere between 700,000 to a million, how many would actually be touched by these social programmes? And even if it was a small number, were these programmes impactful? Were they building the future leaders of Dharavi who would lead the slum out of the muck?
“There are a lot of people smiling here which is nice,” said Jed as we walked through Kumbharwada. Till then, in the two hours we had been in Dharavi, we hadn’t seen too many smiles. Savita, who lives in Kumbharwada, was dressed in a bright red sari, with a gold coloured bindi and glass bangles. She was going for a puja when I met her. She was pleased to see tourists visiting her area. She felt a sense of pride that people from all over the world were coming to see her community. Another potter had allowed foreigners to talk to her granddaughter who knew English and even take photographs with her. But her granddaughter didn’t keep well and would fall ill often. All these tours glossed over the hard realities, concentrating on the hard-working and harmonious nature of the residents while ignoring the health hazards, severe sanitation and infrastructural issues and the perilous conditions of labour in some factories. Some tourists I spoke to wondered if the tours were painting an inspiring picture while leaving out the real, tough parts.
We are all drawn to stories of the shared human experience and are inspired by those who rise above circumstances. Poverty has always attracted curious folk with the first slum tour taking place in Victorian England. In the five hours that I spent at Dharavi, as meagre as they are, I pondered over the words intrusive, voyeuristic and poverty tourism. I knew that I wouldn’t go back on a slum tour, though I would continue to visit slums for my volunteer work with an NGO. If a tour is just to seek out poverty, to be exposed to a slum and not about improving the lot of the people, then, it is inexcusably wrong. All the tour operators promise investments back in the community but the proof lies in the pudding, and so far, that isn’t a clear picture. But in the same breath, condemning slum tours, calling them unethical and asking for a ban, isn’t a realistic take on the current situation. Slum tours will continue to grow as long as there are slums and tourists who want an off-beat, ‘real’ experience. These tours can become powerful movements for social upliftment and betterment of the very subjects. Between the tour providers and tourists there is a responsibility to ensure that the trust the locals have given is not misplaced. The ball was set rolling ten years ago, and is now gathering force, whether it takes Dharavi along to greener pastures, or leaves it behind is to be seen. The power to direct change might just lie in the tourist’s hand.
*5 Biggest Slums of the World, International Business Times, 12 Sept. 2011