“..An insult to every Indian” was how the then West Bengal Minister of Culture had described the novel “City of Joy” by Dominique Lapierre, when it was released in 1982. The story revolved around the experiences and hardships of a Polish missionary priest, a rickshaw puller from the city slums, and a young American doctor, and explored sensitive issues like poverty, caste divisions in the slums of Kolkata. The book went on to become a huge literary and commercial success internationally, and was later made into a film as well by the same name.
Slum tourism or slumming, which basically refers to organised touristic visits to urban areas of relative poverty, has been the topic of similar debates time and again. Critics speak about commodifying poverty and insensitivity towards slum dwellers who may not be keen on exhibiting their economic weaknesses to unknown people, for the profit of the tour operators who may not even be from the community. Tour operators and propounders talk about educating the tourists about the challenges of such informal settlements, about ploughing back part of the profits into local community development, and about taking precautionary measures that ensure the dwellers do not feel uncomfortable. Measuring the pros and cons in the context of sustainable development to put debates to rest, though can be tricky.
Reality Tours and Travel, an award winning social business that conducts such tours in Mumbai and Delhi, talks about being sensitive by limiting the tourist groups to five people and following a no photography policy. Its website has the profile of twelve of its guides, most of whom are from Dharavi (the slum in Mumbai where these walks are conducted), illustrating the concept of local employment generation that directly fits into the Sustainable Development Goal 1 that talks about eradicating poverty and generating employment. All of them are male though, but the potential of training and recruiting women to also adhere to the Goal 5 of gender equality cannot be ignored. A chunk of it’s profits are used to support local development projects in the area of health and wellbeing (Goal 3), education (Goal 4) and livelihoods (Goal 1). Another upcoming organization in Kolkata called Let’s Meet Up Tours talks about engaging in local development projects in education (Goal 4), cook stoves for individual dwellings and better access to clean water (Goal 6).
You can read about the Sustainable Development Goals here.
Mr. Lapierre has been pumping in half of his royalties from the novel (among others written by him, that converts to millions of dollars) into the City of Joy Foundation, that has set up a network of clinics, schools, rehabilitation centres and hospital boats for the poorest people in and around the city. Most slumming organisations in India also seem to follow the same model of investing a part of their profits into local community as well. Provided these investments help the overall development of the settlements and have the trust of the local communities, slumming may not be so bad after all.
The author is Ritesh Datta, Co-Founder of Alpaviram. He can be reached here.
Here’s what Coldplay was inspired to do after a visit to Dharavi: Hymn for a Weekend