What do you think of when you hear the word slum? Do you imagine a decrepit squalor overflowing with people broken down by circumstances and wallowing in self-pity?
If you’re like me, the first image that takes root in your mind is a far cry from hustle or industriousness. It almost certainly is not one of sustainability or enterprise. Yet these are precisely the terms I would use to describe my recent visit to Dharavi, India, one of the world’s most notorious slums.
Once a marshy outpost, housing city outcasts on the edge of Mumbai, Dharavi has evolved into a thriving entrepreneurial zone boasting a strong sense of community and low crime rates.
In fact, if raggedy garments were replaced with suits, sweat with shiny briefcases, and old decrepit buildings with gleaming skyscrapers, I might have confused this ambitious buzz for a morning on Wall Street in a bullish market.
Throughout the tour, I was plagued by a sense of inferiority. No matter where I stood or walked, I found myself in the way of progress. Men wheeling carts overflowing with various materials – bricks or recycled plastic — whizzed by as if our group of tourists were invisible. I became an annoying pest impeding operational efficiency. This was perhaps the only time during my four months in India where I could walk for hours — or even five minutes — and not encounter a plea for money.
A maze of matchbox buildings, Dharavi is home to thousands of micro-industries collectively generating over $650 million annually. Dharavi’s enterprise is best known for its critical role in waste management. It is said that if it wasn’t for Dharavi, India’s most populous city would sink under the weight of its own rubbish. A panoramic view from atop any high-rise rooftop might be mistaken for the most neatly-organized landfill. In the morning, each rooftop is loaded with heaps of recyclable garbage, separated by material to match the operation housed below.
Besides serving as the garbage disposal for Mumbai’s 21 million citizens and surrounding sprawls, Dharavi houses 15,000 single-room factories — producing a diversity of finished products spanning clothing, leather belts and wallets, glue, pipes, soap, candles, bricks, pottery, and baked goods.
I was conflicted before visiting Dharavi. As I prepared for my visit, I became part of an ongoing debate about the real impact of “slum tourism.” Is it ethically sound to support a tour company that makes millions of dollars by unveiling the lives of those who live on $2 a day? I was loath to join the swaths of voyeur tourists, turning hardship into photographs.
But I was assured that trips with Reality Tours & Travel are different. I finally concluded that I could not accurately assess the concept of “slum tourism” until I observed it up close, first-hand.
My introduction to Dharavi came from Bipin Kumar, a sharp, well-spoken guide boasting an endless depth of knowledge about not only life in the slum, but across India and beyond. Kumar presented Dharavi not as a home to the downtrodden, but as desirable real estate available only to the most fortunate of workers.
Because it is so densely packed, Dharavi’s population is essentially capped and is strictly, if not formally, regulated. Listening to him speak of rapidly escalating rent prices and desperate demand for a floor to sleep on, Kumar gave me the impression that newcomers to Dharavi face more formidable competition breaking into a few feet of living space than do studio-seekers in TriplePundit’s home in San Francisco.
It was about halfway through the tour when my assumptions of Kumar’s affluent, well-educated background were dashed. He touched lightly upon his childhood, which took place in a nearby slum in the Kurla area of Mumbai. He attended school in the slum and after graduating from 12th standard, India’s equivalent to the completion of high school, took a Photoshop course to learn graphic design. After working in design and sales, he spotted an ad for a position with Reality Tours in the local newspaper and immediately connected with the mission and model.
As a social enterprise prioritizing impact over profit, Reality Tours allocates 80 percent of post-tax profits to fund its own education-focused NGO, which was established to “equip local residents with the tools they need to achieve their potential and to break free from the cycle of poverty.”
Reality Gives opened a school in Dharavi, training 15 local women who have taught English, computer proficiency and soft skills to 400 students. Additionally, Reality Gives runs sports programs that engage over 130 children.
Despite the obvious reality, somehow Dharavi is often portrayed as a squalid slum and treated as such. Perhaps the view all depends on the tourist. Even one woman in our tour spoke with pity about the poor slum-dwellers while the rest of the group marveled at the impressive hustle and ingenuity around us.
Through its growing network of tours throughout India, Reality Tours teaches us a valuable lesson by revealing the beauty of what can exist in a part of the world neglected by humanity or overlooked by assumption. The question is whether we will choose to open our eyes to see its reality.
Image credits: Reality Tours & Travel, used with permission