Travel Blog • Michael Yessis • 02.27.07 | 8:26 AM ET
The Mumbai squatter settlement of Dharavi is known as one of the biggest slums in Asia. “It is also one of India’s newest tourist attractions,” writes John Lancaster in a thoughtful story on the phenomenon of poverty tourism in this month’s Smithsonian. For a little less than $7, Lancaster joined a small group of foreign travelers to walk through Dharavi, “a vast junkyard, a hodgepodge of brick and concrete tenements roofed with corrugated metal sheets that gleamed dully in the sunshine.” And what do such tours mean, for the residents of slums, the entrepreneurs and the travelers?
Critics say it’s an invasion of privacy at best, and perhaps bordering on a crime against humanity. Proponents respond that they’re showing the reality of the slums, and exposing the majority of the residents as hard-working people struggling to make a living.
As for Lancaster, he falls somewhere between the two ponits of view.
We finished the tour on the side of a busy four-lane road, where the festive sounds of a Hindu wedding ceremony—apparently the one the potters had gone to—spilled from a gaudy tent. We paused to peek inside, and I spotted the groom sitting awkwardly beneath an enormous gold turban. No one gave us a second glance, and I had to wonder about the motives of those in the Indian media and elsewhere who claimed on behalf of the Dharavi residents to be offended by the tours. Surely their ire could have been better targeted at the municipal authorities who had failed to provide the community with basic sanitation. I wondered whether the critics weren’t simply embarrassed by the slum’s glaring poverty—an image at odds with the country’s efforts to rebrand itself as a big software park. In any case, it seemed to me that the purpose of the tour was not to generate pity, but understanding. That’s not to say that it made me an expert—I was only there a few hours, after all. Were the people I saw in Dharavi the victims of globalization, or its beneficiaries? I still don’t know. But at least the question had been raised in my mind.
Photo of India by Wili Hybrid (via flickr, Creative Commons).
Related to World Hum:
* Video: A Primer on ‘Slum Tourism’
* ‘This is Lagos’: George Packer in Nigeria’s Megacity
* A Young Girl’s Introduction to Poverty
* Rio de Janeiro: The Little Slum Inn