Photo courtesy (Wikimedia)
Tumble down housing, children defecating near open gutters and piles of garbage-this is the image of Dharavi that is familiar to most of us. Let's hold that thought. There are two conclusions we tend to draw when reading about Dharavi; we either recognize why it is called one of Asia's largest slums or we argue that it is one of India's largest economic hubs. Most of us accept that these worlds co-exist. However, a spike in global and local interest in the slum is now bringing something we'd long forgotten to the surface - the voices of its people.
In Mumbai, a sustainable tourism company called "Reality Tours and Travels" takes nearly 15,000 people every year on a learning journey through Dharavi, hoping to break stereotypes about citizens living in abject poverty. Nick Hamilton, Communications Director at Reality Tours, is mindful about the success of the exclusive, eye-opening tours within Dharavi that they offer to visiting students, locals and tourists who are curious about the growing slum.
"Social businesses and community-based organizations are playing an important role by demonstrating to the travel industry that doing good and doing well are compatible ideas." He says, "That is, it is possible to run a successful business that is environmentally sustainable and benefits the local community. "
There are several social enterprises and non-government organizations that have functioned within Dharavi and worked closely with communities for years. But keeping tourist attention at bay when India is inviting interest from foreign students, researchers and early-career professionals isn't easy. Bridging the gap in interest between the odd tourist who wants to click photos of cows and deprivation or a gap-year student seeking "a spiritual experience" while catering to the real needs of the community is difficult but a responsibility that Reality Tours has managed quite well.
Photo: Boys enjoy a game of cricket outside homes in Dharavi. (Andreas Grosse-Halbue)
The key, Nick explains, is to do away with the seemingly large gap that we experience as citizens. These tours are tailored cognizant of the fact that the average visitor has limited time in the country and wants the best understanding of life in a slum without negatively impacting its communities. The experience is, therefore, designed to fill the intimate gap in knowledge between what we read in the news and real life. The tour allows visitors to explore both the entrepreneurial and personal sides of Dharavi; its recycling industry, leather businesses, pottery colonies and residents homes. There are also other localised tours that help visitors explore Mumbai.
Since its inception, the organisation has been committed to driving 80% of the profits earned into a sister concern, Reality Gives, which develops and runs educational programs and other activities to help youth from communities in the slum realise their true potential. A few programs that Reality Gives offers are Youth Empowerment (YEP), Functional and Communicative English and Girls Football for Development.
"Voluntourism" is big business. With more students aching for an international experience to add to their resume, there are eyes set on developing countries. These trips could cost from almost nothing (if the individual already has the connections that he or she needs) to over $6000 plus airfare for a mere 12 weeks and the tasks on offer include protecting endangered animals, teaching English and volunteering in orphanages.
Last month, Saurabh Sabharwal, the CEO of Volunteering Solutions, a Gurgaon-based volunteering placement company talked at length about the rise in global interest in their services. He mentioned that nearly 80 percent of foreign volunteers interested in using their skills for voluntary work were women. He added that the organisation gets around 1500 volunteers to India every year.
Photo: A Youth Empowerment class in session (Reality Gives)
Reality Tours uses a unique, personal approach to ensure local communities are able to benefit from this interest. Blessy Sipora, a 14-year-old who goes to school in Sion and lives in Dharavi, is an active participant of the Girls Football program and says that the program instilled confidence in her. Hajira Sheik, a 22-year-old, who enrolled in the Youth Empowerment program last year to improve her conversational English says, "They changed my life, my thoughts. They encourage me and it also boosts my confidence. Now I don't have stage fright. It encourages me to think much broader and innovatively."
Viji, a young mother who recently graduated from the program, is now a confident woman pursuing her dream of owning a tailoring business. The many young men who work as guides for the Dharavi tours come with inspiring stories of their own. One such story involves Mayur, who was born and raised in Dharavi, and joined Reality Gives as a caretaker when he was 16. He eventually went on to represent India as a national-level footballer at the AFL International cup in Melbourne and is currently the Operations Executive of Reality Tours.
Dharavi, like many other slums, mirrors our own social prejudices and stereotypes of poverty. By making up our minds about the lives of its people, we aren't just ignoring their voices, we're stripping them of the agency they deserve. The one-dimensional lens of the tourism industry doesn't help either. According to a sustainable tourism expert at the Virginia Tech University, the "volunteering" industry pumps in around $2 billion dollars from over 10 million volunteers in the United States alone. Globally, the industry is valued at nearly $173 billion. In fact, as you read this, there are probably starry-eyed students -- around the world and in India -- signing up to volunteer their time simply because they're fascinated with the lives of the poor.
If anything, this is a wake-up call to each of us to become more responsible when we want to plan a vacation that infuses volunteering and travel. Travelling is a fantastic learning experience but infusing that spirit of wanderlust with charity involves great responsibility, and most importantly, empathy. It's crucial that we don't forget the role that people play in that journey of self discovery. It is estimated that one third of the world's 1.2 billion poorest people live in India. If we truly want to "give back" in a way that empowers our citizens to fight poverty, it begins with recognising them as equals; people with hopes and dreams just like us, people who deserve the right to a life of dignity.