Viewing India’s Down and Out

Photo by Wen-Yan King

There was a time not long ago when India was synonymous in the popular imagination of the west as a place of numbing poverty, streams of beggars and teeming slums. Now that the image is shifting to silicon-fueled growth, Bollywood glamour and call-center empires, tourists – and the 300 million-odd members of India’s burgeoning middle class -- may worry that the India of their nightmares (or their youth) is gone.

Do not fear. In addition to the Taj Mahal, magnificent palaces and echoes of the raj, India-bound vacationers can plump for a radically different travel itinerary – slum tours. A big draw for foreigners keen to experience the “real India,” slum tourism is the latest buzzword in Indian travel.

Take your pick, it’s all real and it’s all on offer. A new company offers a close-up view of life at Mumbai's Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, with uncensored – if brief glimpses into the dark underbelly of urban India. In New Delhi, enterprising street children have formed their own informal tour guide operation, picking up visitors from the train station for a walk about through their world.

In both places, children still trawl through garbage mounds and open sewers. Mounds of rotting refuse and musty alleys lined with shanties crammed against each other remind the visitor of bad times. Emaciated rag pickers comb through discards at railway stations India's clichéd impoverished exotica is on full view for public consumption, either just another commodity along the tourist trail or a consciousness-raising experience.

Bus tours of the shanty towns of Soweto in South Africa or guided walks through the favelas of urban Brazil have attracted curious tourists for years. In Kenya, the mean streets of Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, have become a must-see for tourists, even drawing international celebrities. Following a similar template, tours to Delhi's railway underworld and Dharavi have been running for about a year and are immensely popular with Western and Indian visitors.

“We think that Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia, is one of the most interesting places to see in Mumbai,” says the website of Mumbai-based Reality Tours and Travels. “The beauty of Dharavi lies not on the main roads but in the small alleys where thousands work and live in a number of small enterprises, where goats roam freely and where children play with carefree abandon.”

Reality Tours and Travels, which began operations in 2006, offers assorted slum tours of Dharavi. Reality Tours' short trips – just three hours with a guide and then back to the hotel for a good shower, presumably cost Rs 400 (US $10) per head. The longer experience lasts five hours and costs Rs 2,400 for four people. The longer tour includes an air conditioned car but still tourists have to get out of the vehicle and amble through the labyrinthine alleyways accompanied by their guide if they want to really see the place. The walk is not strenuous, the company says.

"Our slum tours have been a great success," states Krishna Poojari of Reality Tours, who along with his young British friend Chris Way, launched the company last year. Peddling Dharavi, Mumbai’s pride and shame is certainly an ingenious business. Located between two of the city’s largest railway stations, Dharavi hosts over one million people in about 175 square kilometers of swampy land. The slum's residents live in cramped quarters with little or no sanitation. But despite this, a shack at Dharavi can cost as much as US$40,000 and will have more than 10 people squeezed into it at any given time. The sheer density of humanity can be revolting and gut-wrenching. No matter. The gargantuan slum is also a productive crucible for handmade goods like clay pots, craft items and garments. It provides a livelihood to millions.

"Our tours are not aimed at showcasing Dharavi's poverty but its spectacular growth, industry and production," Poojari insists. With almost 80 per cent of the slum tour profits going to a local charity, MESCO (Modern Education and Social Cultural Organization), the Dharavi residents also don't object. MESCO operates an English-speaking and vocational school in Dharavi. The company also bans cameras on the tour and takes only five people at a time so as not to turn the stroll into a spectacle. “We are very aware of not wanting to invade and disturb the residents of Dharavi,” the website explains.

But isn’t showing the slums degrading for its inhabitants? The primary purpose, says Poojari, is to dispel the view that Dharavi is only a place of squalor. Dharavi, he says, is a productive epicenter for many industries. This makes the area truly unique because even in Brazil or South Africa where slum tours are well-established there isn't this kind of productivity. "That's what we highlight to the visitors," he says.

In New Delhi, slum tours are usually conducted by erstwhile street children who show visitors what life is like for the city's most deprived inhabitants – at railway stations, bus stations and pavements. The money raised (200 rupees a ticket - £2.50) goes to local charities which rehabilitate street children.

The day I went to the railway station for a tour, there was none scheduled, but Salauddin, a youth guide and a former pavement dweller, nevertheless offers to fill me in on the drill. Each platform, he explains, is controlled by a gang leader, one of the older street children, who protects the younger boys under his wing. He says the railway station offers refuge to kids who are absconding from their homes in other towns – usually escaping poverty, ill treatment or family violence. Gang leaders spot a new arrival as soon as he steps off the train and help him find food and a place to sleep.

The new arrivals are shown how to survive by making money through selling plastic bottles and silver foil picked up from rail carriages. The day's pickings are taken away by the leader who then redistributes it every Saturday, the kids’ day off, when they are allowed to eat out and watch Bollywood movies. Platform one, explains Salauddin, is where the luxury tourist trains stop. This is also the most heavily policed area but also the most lucrative. Often gangs fight over this territory. When I ask why there no girls in the gangs, Saluddin explains that they are picked up by pimps and taken to brothels as soon as they arrive.

Saluddin says that a dozen odd boys like him conduct slum tours around Delhi's railway stations. Each trip, he says, is tailored as an awareness-raising venture and not a voyeuristic outing for the rich to gape at the lives of the poor. "These visitors," elaborates Salauddin, "are genuinely interested in the lives of the underprivileged and often help out monetarily or leave their business cards behind for the local charities."