"Money good, working bad." Our guide, Ishaq has no shortage of aphorisms to capture the light and dark of life in Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums. He points to the clouds of noxious fumes rising from the aluminium recycling unit where battered old containers are melted down and turned back into usable product. There are few if any environmental standards adhered to here, and health and safety is a concept seemingly irrelevant to the wage laborers whose safety boots are flip flops. But although the dangers are many, there is regular paid work. And for Mumbai's slum dwellers, that is what matters most. And besides, who else is going to do the dirty work of recycling the city's discarded junk and refuge, and returning it into productive use?
The life of a business ethics professor takes you to some pretty interesting places. It is not too often though that we find ourselves in the middle of a huge urban slum. Not that we've been short of opportunities having spent time in cities such as Rio, Cape Town, and Mumbai over the last few years. But there is always a profound sense of unease about stepping into the life of the city's poorest residents. Of course, in some cases it's just plain dangerous, such in the favelas of Rio. But even when it isn't, or when there's a local guide at hand to provide security, there are significant ethical doubts too. Knowing that you can just saunter back into the air conditioned hotel at the end of your trip to the slum means that you're little more than a slum tourist exploring the underbelly of society for your own voyeuristic pleasure. However much you may claim it to be educational to see how other sections of society live, slum tourism can't but help to raise moral uncertainty. This New York Times op ed from last year summarizes these concerns pretty succinctly. As a result, we've stayed away from the dubious attractions of slum tourism. Until now.
On the advice of a colleague, we decided to investigate a so-called 'ethical' slum tour provider. Whilst in Mumbai teaching at our school's MBA program in India we hooked up with Reality Tours and Travel, which offers tours of Dharavi, the city's largest and most well known slum. Dharavi is pretty much slap bang in the middle of modern metropolitan area of Mumbai, and just a short ride away from the 5-star luxury hotel where our school puts up its itinerant professors. The contrast, as with much of modern Mumbai, couldn't be more stark. Air-conditioned comfort is immediately replaced by a sweltering cacophony of noise and dirt. And discreet service is replaced by perilous, unrelenting industry.
It's clear that this is not just any old slum tour. There is a strict 'no cameras' policy, and the focus of the tour is not so much the corrugated iron shacks of the residential quarters of Dharavi, but the remarkable commercial activity that powers the slum's economy. It is said that some 5000 businesses operate in the tightly packed lanes of Dharavi, accounting for an incredible $600m of turnover annually - much of it in the illegal or informal economy. Recycling, leather and pottery make us the largest proportion of this, and so it is these that provide the focus of Reality's slum tour. Ishaq leads us first to a fragrant bakery and then onto a micro plastics recycling business where piles upon piles of multicoloured plastics are dried and then painstakingly sorted on the roof, before being melted down and then formed into pellets for resale in the cramped concrete rooms below. A sink and a few rolled mats is the only evidence that this is also where the workers live and sleep once the days' work is done. After that we move on to other recycling businesses, before passing the leather cutting, tanning and treating area and then onto the more peaceful environs of the potters colony which called Dharavi home since the 1930s. Along the way, we also take in a popadom bakery to see how the cross legged women shape and bake the traditional Indian appetisers, and briefly pass through (but do not stop at) some residential lanes.
According to Reality, the aim of the tour is "to show the positive side of the slums and break down negative stereotypes about its people and residents". Our trusty guide certainly doesn't fail to offer a positive spin on what might otherwise simply turn into a grim picture of India's unrelenting filth and poverty. He engages amiably with local residents, and he shows us a local health centre, an English language middle school, thriving businesses - this is no sob story meant to induce pity but an encouraging (if realistic) glimpse into Dharavi's struggle to sustain and prosper against the odds. As if to reinforce this, the tour finishes at the community centre run by Reality's sister organization (the NGO Reality Gives) which provides English, computing and skills training to disadvantaged young people.
It's a nice touch, but the real kicker is that this is not just some minor charitable add-on to 'put something back'. When Reality talks about changing the image of the slum, it goes beyond simply refocusing the optics. The company is putting its money where its mouth is. Since setting up in 2006, Reality has pledged that a full 80% of the profits from the slum tours would go to local charities. They even publish a summary of their accounts on the web to prove it. The establishment of their sister NGO Reality Gives in 2009 has provided a focus for these efforts, and along with the community centre, has now opened a kindergarden to provide quality education for preschoolers in the slum.
'Ethical' or 'responsible' tourism of all stripes, is a work in progress. Ethical slum tourism, in particular, poses all kinds of moral challenges. In our opinion, Reality is doing a fine job in walking that tightrope. Whilst it doesn't appear to have yet addressed the critical questions of scale - the more it succeeds, the more it risks overwhelming the slum with tourists - it does tackle both the content of its tours, and what it puts back into the community. Training and employing disadvantaged young people as guides, focusing on slum businesses rather than people's private lives, and banning cameras all help remove some of the moral tensions that can give slum tourism a bad name. And making investments that help educate slum residents and give them a chance to improve their lives helps balance the one-sided equation a little. Just ask the Dharavi resident who reveled in taking snaps of our small band of tourists whilst our own cameras stayed firmly in our backpacks.
Photo by Meanest Indian. Reproduced under Creative Commons License.