Economy

Slum tours: legit or ‘porn’?

Is it OK to pay to see suffering? To witness human rights being violated before your eyes?

This is the kind of thing travellers are paying to see during one of Mumbai’s famous slum tours. 

Mumbai is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with an estimated population of around 23 million. To put this into perspective, picture every single person in Australia being crammed into one metropolitan area. If spread out across the city, it would mean around 20,000 people for every square kilometre. 

An aerial view of Mumbai featuring both high-rise apartments and tightly packed slums.
Photo: Georgia Hargreaves.

Of course, this is not exactly how it looks in reality. In fact, rapid population increases over the last two decades have caused widespread housing issues. Just under half the city’s population lives in slums.  

According to the United Nations, a slum household is a group of individuals living under the same roof who are deprived of one or more of the following: housing made of durable and protective material, sufficient living space, access to clean water at an affordable price, access to adequate toilet facilities and security of tenure that prevents forced eviction.

To put it simply, slums are the embodiment of poverty.

Dharavi is the second largest slum in Asia, and it’s located in the heart of Mumbai. It spreads across a mere two kilometres, yet is home to approximately one million people.

A section of housing and businesses in the Dharavi slum area.
Photo: Georgia Hargreaves.

For the 2019 Traveller’s Choice awards,  TripAdvisor named Dharavi Slum Tours as the number one recommended experience in India.  Indeed, it rated higher than visiting the Taj Mahal. 

Perhaps this can be attributed to its famous appearance in various Bollywood and Hollywood films alike, including Slumdog Millionaire.

But that was more than a decade ago. So why do people keep coming back?

Slum porn

Slum Rehabilitation Society (SRS) is a donation-based organisation that focuses predominantly on providing new and safe housing for people living in slums. Since its foundation in 1972, SRS has helped over 9000 families by giving them the opportunity to live more comfortably, and with dignity.

One of the first apartment buildings funded by SRS for people relocated from slums.
Photo: Georgia Hargreaves.

As the director and trustee of SRS, Yorick Fonseca has spent decades working in slums across the city, including Dharavi. He also oversees the operation of various facilities in Dharavi, including child-minding services and medical clinics.

Children wait outside a medical clinic owned and operated by SRS in Dharavi, Mumbai.
Photo: Georgia Hargreaves.

“My gut reaction as a social worker is that I would somewhat recoil from the thought that tourist guides are bringing visitors from overseas to come look at people living in slums, in abject conditions,” he says. “It sort of ends up as people being viewed as being in a zoo… being viewed upon by people who want to come and see what abject conditions they’re living in.”

“Some might almost call it ‘slum porn’ you know?”

Fonseca describes some of the businesses that operate in Dharavi and says some are unique in a slum environment. For example, some sections focus on woodwork and carpentry recycling. Some focus on the recycling of glassware and other inputs. Others are involved with metalwork recycling.

“So, the scrap metal and scrap wood and scrap glass and scrap whatever – from all over the city – comes to Dharavi, including old refrigerators and air conditioners and washing machines etc., and they’re recycled there,” he continues.

A Dharavi man carries piles of rubbish, ready for sorting.
Photo: Indiana Lysaght.

While, for some, the mere thought of touring a slum might leave a bad taste, Fonseca says some activity in Dharavi is inspirational and definitely worth seeing.

An economic hub

“I think the unique thing about Dharavi that people come to see, which I don’t really object to, is the fact that [it] has a somewhat unique combination of commercial activities going on, adjacent to residential dwelling units,” he explains.

“Dharavi has emerged as an economic hub so I think the aspect that these tour guides are showing to the foreign visitor, which again I don’t object to, is the fact that Dharavi is a slum that is unique because there are people working hard to make a living,”

“… it’s a beehive of activity and people go to see that, so that’s the plus side of Dharavi that people are seeing for themselves and appreciating,” Mr Fonseca says.

Eager to see and experience this so-called economic hub for myself, I decided to embark on a private slum tour of Dharavi. What I saw, was shocking.

For the most part.

Inside a Dharavi slum tour

Mohammad Sadique is the founder of Inside Mumbai Tours, and a resident of Dharavi himself. Before we began the tour, Mohammad warns against photography on the tour, as it is often met with an understandable suspicion and distrust of outsiders.

Modammad Sadique in Dharavi, Mumbai.
Photo: Georgia Hargreaves.

“If you come on the Dharavi tour, you will learn something,” he assures me.

I was guided down an alleyway, past some open drains, under low hanging wires and through a small gap between poorly configured buildings. As I walked through this industrial section of Dharavi, I stuck out like a well groomed poodle in a herd of sweaty workhorses.

I saw men sitting on the floor of a tiny, dark room, sweating in their singlets. It smelt damp. They gawked at me as we walked past, greeting my guide with a hint of curious humour on their faces.

A man sorts through various discarded items for recycling.
Photo: Indiana Lysaght.

As the tour progressed, I saw what these people were living in. The darkness swallowed me up as we entered the narrow walkways that separate each residence.

Despite being a paying tourist, I tried not to stare into people’s dark, cramped homes. They stared at me as I politely tried to hide my shocked expression.

Up close, the living and working conditions of the Dharavi slum are confronting. Did I really pay to see this?

The bigger picture

Economics professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Dr Unmesh Patnik, believes people living in the slums are not overly concerned with the presence of tourists.

“[There are] so many people living in this small place,” he says. “There are a lot of struggles that keep one’s mind occupied, and that takes a toll during a day.

“So the biggest thing when I get up in the morning … the first thing that comes to mind is how I reach my office,” Patnik explains.

Around 7.5 million people commute to and from the city centre each day via train, presenting a major challenge for Mumbai’s workforce. The overcrowding means the risk of injury or death is high. Between 2002 and 2012, almost 40,000 people lost their lives on India’s railways.

An overcrowded train in Mumbai.
Photo: Indiana Lysaght.

“These are the struggles of common people, simple simple struggles.”

Dr Unmesh Patnik

Patnik also does not believe slum tourism directly affects the micro economy of Dharavi.

“[For] people living in that area, their standard of living is determined by something else than … tourism,” he says. “When we speak of tourism, the [monetary] benefit that is brought by this tourism, is not directly seen in that area.”

As a Dharavi resident, born and raised, Mohammad Sadique feels differently.