Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Ethics of Slum Tours

- By Deepa Krishnan
A newspaper reporter interviewed me recently. One of the questions she asked me was about the poverty in Mumbai, and our tours to Dharavi, Asia's largest slum.

"Is this not voyeurism?", she asked me. "The affluent stare at the poor, and you make money off it?"

The answer to this question is complex, so I thought I'd list my views here and invite comments from you, my readers.

First of all, there is no avoiding the poor in Mumbai. The slums are all-pervasive. In many parts of the city, there are shanties by the roadside. At Colaba, at Horniman Circle, there are the homeless - they are dirty and unkempt, living on the pavements. On a recent drive through Fort, a semi-naked man walked past us, his body caked with dirt, his clothing in tatters. At traffic signals, tourists are accosted by beggars with shocking sores and disfigurements.

For overseas visitors, the image this creates is of two bewilderingly different Mumbais - one that is rich and glitzy and safe in their five-star cocoon, and the other that lives a hellish life on the streets, begging, cringing, with no self-respect whatsoever.

There is no room for an understanding of a third Mumbai - the Mumbai of the hard-working poor. The Mumbai of the aspiring migrant, with his fierce drive for survival, for self-improvement. The Mumbai of small enterprise. The Mumbai of cottage industries. The Mumbai of poor yet strong women, running entire households on the strength of their income from making papads. Every morning, these women put food on the table, braid their daughters' hair, and send them to schools. They have hope for the future, you see? This is the Mumbai of dreams, which I want my guests to see.

Dharavi is one place where this third Mumbai is visible. In the papad units, in the little tailoring shops, in Kumbharwada, in the kirana grain stores, everywhere Dharavi displays a spirt that is fierce and energetic. Every time my overseas visitors go into Dharavi, they come back with a first-hand insight into this third Mumbai.
One of my American guests summed this up very well, after a 2 hour visit to Dharavi. I've quoted her before, and I quote her again: To me, this place dispels the myth that poverty is due to laziness — that the poor somehow deserve their lot in life because they are lazy or stupid or otherwise lacking in some important character trait that the successful possess. Dharavi is a resounding rebuttal to that belief.

Seeing Dharavi is not even remotely voyeuristic. Dharavi stands up and demands respect, and guess what - it gets it.


Anonymous said...

I knew you'd blog about it... was watching this space!! Found your blog interesting. the charge of voyeurism is never an easy one to escape... and depends, as we had discussed, on the way things are shown. One thing that further struck me was that the type of viewer is equally important: the motives of he who sees are as much to be understood as he/she who shows.
Seeing poverty on the streets, at the intersections, along footpaths differs in only one major respect from the tours, in that they are not being shown: they are being seen. The nuance is subtle... i wish i could italicise the words for effect (democratise the melodrama effect!), but all important.
And finally, having gone on a tour myself, I understand the enterprise you are keen to showcase. I saw it myself...and was pretty blown away. However, the only problem I have with this is the politics of showcasing: how easily it lends itself to stereotyping. And while Shelley does rightly talk about the shattering of stereotypes, we must also be wary of creating new ones in their place.

Shelley Seale said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I have written about the "two Indias" that you refer to - and you are right, if a visitor sees a third India, the one of the industrious working poor with dreams, there is only that much more to learn. And, in my opinion, it goes a LONG WAY toward bridging the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

You are also right in that there is no escaping the "voyeurism" of the poor in Mumbai. In fact, there's no escaping it anywhere in India - there's no escaping it in my hometown of Austin, Texas either! We have homeless that sleep on our sidewalks, who occasionally accost passersby, who stand at our street corners and beg from passing autos.

It constantly amazes me how many people walk right by without even looking. What you are doing is trying to say, "Look closer, beyond the surface, beyond the stereotypes. These are real people with real lives."

Dhamini is right that it can lend itself to stereotyping. But as she also says, and as I said to her in my response to her interview request, it is usually a different sort of traveler who goes on these tours - not the type who wants to buy a luxury package tour to be shielded from anything that's too "real." The type of tourist will have a lot to do with it - and if done right, the way Deepa does, I believe this will actually shatter those stereotypes.

Dhamani, thank you for such a well done article. I enjoyed it very much; and thank you for focusing on this topic!
Shelley Seale

iceman678 said...

wow, that was amazing. i'm really at a loss for words right now.

Anonymous said...

Just like the journalist who interviewed you , we are all doing something for the money it brings in. However, if it was for the money alone, you would probably have gone there once, taken the right photographs, and published them in the popular magazines. For someone to keep making repeated trips to places like Dharavi is I am sure not a very easy task. And we have no doubts about your motive. If atleast one person can bring about some change in thinking and the perspective of any individual - like you are trying to - it should be encouraged. And if you are making some money from the tours, there is nothing wrong in it.

Anonymous said...

Nice riposte. I was a clueless foreigner (American) on a Dharavi tour once, and I thought a lot about this issue.


Anonymous said...

Have spent 7 days in Dharavi - Walked the length and breadth but it was still not over.
My then boyfriend who studied in the cocoons of IIT and an outsider told me that he wanted to see the real bombay. I took him to see Dharavi. This was in 1996.

Anonymous said...

Last year this time around, my daughter's American friend was visiting India(they are married now) we took him to Agra-Jaipur-Delhi.He was fasinated with real India, the way people were working on the road-side each according to his/her capability and try to make their life better.Small kids impressed him the best with their expertise to sell things, the way they changed selling tactics, I still remember him saying these kids with proper means can beat any NEWYORKER in sales management. Well I felt proud, proud to be part of a country which believes in hard-working and progressing, well maynot be all but majority does!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

beautiful article! I loved it.

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- David

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Anonymous said...

i feel its a pretty bold move that you started this voyeurism and this is a great motivation for people who actually areseeking for answers how to increase employment and actually catching interests of investors to bring forward the appreciation and better results out of the talent here.. i salute you guys for this idea

Anonymous said...

What trash. You put flowery words around poverty porn. You should be ashamed. If you really care about the poor, you would not call this experience "Slum tour". This is shades of Donald Trump.