There’s hyped up controversy about paying to go see poverty on a “slum tour” in India, but there shouldn’t be if you do it right and with the best of intentions. In early February 2014 we went into the Dharavi slum on the edge of Mumbai with Reality Tours and Travel, a local walking tour company. If you’re going to be a tourist of any sort, better to be a traveler interested in seeing the reality of the place and people, and to do it with everything open: mind, eyes, heart, and a willingness to share.
Walking through Dharavi, I couldn’t help but think about what Gandhi pronounced:
"Just because we may have a different lot in life, doesn’t change the fact that we are all, at our core, one and the same."
What we learned first off is that a slum, by definition, isn’t poverty per se. In fact, life in Dharavi is considered above poverty level, a much better place to eke out a living than trying to survive on the streets in the city. Our Reality Tour guide, Balagi, a handsome, dark-skinned 20 year old with thick black wavy hair, grew up here and still lives in Dharavi with his family. He gives us a much more matter of fact definition of a slum: “It’s any illegal settlement on government land.” Balagi gives some perspective by explaining that while Dharavi is the biggest slum in Mumbai, and one of the biggest in Asia, it is only one of about 2,000 smaller slum neighborhoods in and around the city.
In fact, 55% of Mumbai’s 12 million residents live in a slum or shantytown. Dharavi is spread over a square mile, about half the size of Central Park, so on top of the 300,000 or more residents who live here, when the commuters arrive to work in Dharavi each day the population reaches one million people, 20 times the density of the city of Mumbai. So, to not venture into a slum neighborhood is to turn a blind eye to much of urban life in India.
To be sure, Dharavi like all other slums is a place characterized by overcrowding, dilapidation, lack of proper sanitation, ventilation, light, and with no planning, design or standards of safety and health to which we as privileged travelers are accustomed. Walking through the dark narrow passageways, by open doors with the scent of Indian spices mixing in the dank air with open sewers, carefully stepping on uneven and slippery rock and muddy pathways, it was clear to me that a slum tour is definitely not for every Wildland traveler. It’s no wonder that many Indians, including most tour guides and tourism industry officials, don’t want to show this side of their beautiful country.
Part II of walking through Dharavi slum to be published tomorrow.
Keeping in wild,