Slumdog Voyeur?

Local women in India

As slum tours become increasingly popular in India and elsewhere around the world, tourists have to ask themselves is it ethical to exploit the poor to assuage some privileged curiosity? Or is it supporting a poor community and providing them with much needed tourist dollars?

Mumbai, like much of India, is a city of contrasts. It is a city of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but it is also a country where enterprise takes on a whole new meaning. Instead of letting the poorest parts of the ‘Gateway of India’, the slums, become a blight on the city, a whole subset of the tourism industry has flourished over the last few years to relieve tourists of their money and take them on tours of some of the poorest slums in India.

And when given the chance to go on one of these tours myself, I couldn’t do it.

Dharavi, one of India’s largest shanty towns and infamous for its role in Slumdog Millionaire, is perhaps the most famous slum tour destination and is one of the slums where tourists are guided round on carefully managed tours on a daily basis, with guides deliberately meticulous to assuage any ethical concerns or pangs of conscience.

After all, this is essentially poverty porn. The poorest in society are being exploited to cash in on privileged tourists need for a ‘real’ experience, where benign rich people wander through crowds of poor little peasants like some misguided messiah, handing out gifts of money and pens with a carefully crafted look of condescending concern for their wellbeing. That look has to stay in place for the all important and quickly stolen selfie you see.

But does this really reflect the reality?

Tour companies and organisations are very quick to point out that you are not just visiting a slum, you are visiting a real hotbed of true entrepreneurship and are supporting local businesses and local charities directly.

The tours are quick to point out that despite the extreme poverty, the lack of any safe water or utilities, the lack of real shelter, security and healthcare, the communities in these slums are making the best out of the situation with enterprises as far ranging as recycling soap to small leather or textile workshops. There are countless small enterprises within the ramshackle, tightly packed slum that in essence form a whole shadow economy within India’s second city.

But behind all that there are still glimpses of real poverty, disease and truly squalid living conditions that can never be completely hidden away, and I wasn’t convinced of the tour companies rhetoric of supporting local charities and businesses.

The fact that local communities are finding industrious ways to earn money is a credit to them and I applaud it, but they do not need a group of first world saviours to swan through the tiny labyrinthine streets like the messiah. They do not need to be gawked at like they are some freakish exhibits in a human zoo. In fact if these slums were animal zoos there would be an outcry at the conditions.

I understand the arguments that when done correctly, the tours can provide a link between locals and tourists, and can not only bring direct trade to those locals, but also dispel a lot of negative myths about the slums in the process.

To some extent I agree entirely with the notion of dispelling outside myths and negative sterotypes, and if that were possible in other ways I would be for it. However I cannot get past the fact that the entire premise of these tours is based on the fact that these places are slums. These places are filled with real poverty and real problems, and that is what people are paying to see.

I’d argue all that does is reinforce the negative stereotypes.

If the whole slum tour industry is based on the slum being – and staying – a slum, then in essence those charities and tour guides have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They won’t want the industries and the businesses inside the slums to improve and grow and there is no real evidence that the money you provide to them reaches the people they are exploiting either.

Yet this does not mean travellers need to ignore poverty, there are socially responsible ways tourists can visit local enterprises without going through organised slum tours, and of course whilst keeping to their own practicalities of feeling and staying safe.

I’m not going to say there is a quick and easy answer to all of this, there isn’t. It is a highly complex issue and one that – for now – has no clear cut answers. All I know is when I was given the choice to visit, my conscience would not allow me to.

Would yours?

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Related Articldes

India.

Kajuraho; Conservative India’s Sexual Paradox.

My Battle With Dengue Fever In India.

 

 

Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Responsible Travel
2 comments on “Slumdog Voyeur?
  1. asthaguptaa says:

    I agree.. I would never travel to seek other people’s sorrow that may make me feel like the fortunate one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

Get notified about all the latest travel tips, advice and inspiration as well as amazing competitions and exclusive discounts!

Join 20,041 other followers

Copyright notice.

© Bemused Backpacker and the gecko logo is owned and copyrighted by Michael Huxley 2017. Unless stated, all blog and website content is owned and copyrighted by Michael Huxley 2017.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Michael Huxley is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Huxley and Bemused Backpacker with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Protected by Copyscape DMCA Copyright Detector

%d bloggers like this: