Monday, September 26, 2011

The Positive Spin on Slum Tourism

I’m a man of very little principle. I’m now one of those evil westerners that tours slums. Upon landing in Mumbai last Friday morning, my first stop, even before checking into the hotel, was at Dharavi. More specifically, that stop was an organized and guided tour through three of four sections of the second largest slum in Asia. This slum, which is home to more people than the city of San Fransisco, sprawls over two square kilometers. I’ll help with the math; that’s a population density of over half a million people per squarer kilometer. Yes, this is both the slum where the kids were pulled for “Slumdog Millionaire” as well as a major part of Shantaram (I can’t speak for the latter parts of Gregory David Robert’s tale of an escaped thief’s life in the Mumbai slums as I only made it through the first two hundred or so pages of the 900 page behemoth epic).
I liked the ingenuity of using an old billboard for roofing
This tourist activity, slum tourism, is increasingly controversial. The two basic sides of the argument are fairly obvious. On one side, is it wrong to profit from the exploitation of the impoverished? On the other, is giving greater visibility and awareness toward the way others live while (hopefully) contributing toward their economy a good thing? I suppose my actions place me on the latter side of that argument and don’t even allow me to consider the former. Plus, the tour we were on didn’t allow photographs be taken, so that made me feel slightly less exploitative; and to be honest, it was kind of nice to walk through a place without my camera glued to my eye.

The tour began when we were greeted by our local guide, a sixteen year old named Zisha (I have no idea if that’s the correct spelling). The most striking aspects of Zisha were, first, that he spoke impeccable English and, second, that he was wearing the whitest clothing I’ve seen in this country. I nearly asked him who did his laundry so I could send my shirts. He lead us over a walkway that crossed the train tracks. We descended the stairs and were “in” the slum.
Not the stairs into the slum, but one of the few allowed photographs
My first impression upon setting foot in the second biggest slum in Asia was, “This is actually kind of nice.” Maybe that’s nearly two years in India talking. More likely is that my morbid expectations were flushed away by the time I took my second step.

Morbid Myth #1 – Temporary housing as far as the eye could see
I fully expected to see cardboard or maybe (if they were lucky) bamboo framed shelters covered with blue tarps. In the words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.” The structures lining the main street were quite permanent and, much to my surprise, housed businesses similar to those you’d see on any other commercial street of small business in India. These buildings have been there for some time, and unless the planned "rehabilitation" efforts (which the residents have mixed feelings about) take shape, they're going to be there for a long time.

Morbid Myth #2 – Miserable people as far as the eye could see
I expected to find people down on their lot in life, bathing in their own misery. While there are probably more comfortable places to call home, the people hardly looked miserable. This was a fully functioning community with a robust economy, people working (and working hard) to eek out a life, and children coming home from school. Many thousands work outside the slum as the city's drivers and laborers and could choose to leave if they wanted. They don't. Why? It's where they're from. It's home.

Morbid Myth #3 – The worst smelling and dirtiest place on the earth
The olfactory qualities of India have been well documented by both travelers and residents. As such, I was expecting something similar to what Andy had to swim through to escape the warden in The Shawshank Redemption. Not the case. I was almost immediately struck by the lack of "bad" smell. This was partially due to the lack of animals (Mumbai, in general, has far fewer animals roaming around than you see in other parts of India). If Dharavi had the same animals per capita as a place like Jodhpur, this might not be so much a myth. Suffice to say, I've been to far dirtier and far smellier places than this slum.

Morbid Myth #4 – Slums are so cheap that anyone that shows up will find a place
Dharavi still seems to be accepting migrants from other parts of India, mostly from nearby states like Gujarat and Rajasthan; however, it's not so simple as showing up and finding a place to squat. Given the proposed rehabilitation efforts, speculation (as well as the constant supply of land) has driven real estate prices comically higher than one would expect. Our guide pointed to a rather run-down looking building and mentioned that a studio-sized apartment in the building would cost 300,000. Dollars. U.S. dollars.

Say what you want of slum tourism, but I can honestly say I learned more in my two hours about the social and economic systems that exist in a place like Dharavi than I could have from volumes of books that try to describe it. In the end, isn't that part of what travel is all about? Is slum tourism really any different than something like touring the castles of the royal families of the world? Sure, it's on opposite end of the spectrum, but as long as you're learning, isn't that kind of the point?

Finally, the most surprising thing I saw while touring the slum was an oddity that I'm sure very few people would have noticed. The only reason I noticed is that I have a family friend in Minneapolis that is heavily involved in the Minnesota Green Roofs Council. As our tour concluded, I looked up and to the right and happened to notice a do-it-yourself green roof. While I doubt his organization reaches all the way to Mumbai, it was perhaps the most subtle yet prescient reminder that slums aren't all doom and gloom.


  1. Perhaps because you've lived in India a while, you're better able to distinguish between absolute poverty and the working poor. Slums like Dharavi represent absolute horror to the uninformed western eye, but to most Indians, they represent *working*, if unauthorised neighbourhoods that lack sanitation. Actually, in Mumbai, because of the real estate prices, even lower-level white collar workers live in slums like Dharavi. Few people there are as hopeless and pessimistic as the inhabitants of, say, inner-city Chicago. Everyone is *doing* something in Dharavi, even if their living conditions are not exactly Shangri-la.

  2. Thanks for commenting, perfectly stated (and stated much better than the way I tried)!

  3. It is a great graffiti in the floor. I bet that it is quite hard to do but I don't like the design.

  4. Your Article is Quite Interesting and easily understanding,thanks for sharing us.