Changing perceptions

Thailand June 10, 2015 01:00


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A guided tour of Mumbai's largest slum offers visitors the chance to discover the bustling small-scale enterprises that flourish in the community

Dharavi slum in the very heart of Mumbai seems an unlikely place to see Western tourists, yet on this steamy morning, a group of visitors is walking through the narrow alleys, passing bare-footed children and women squatting and scrubbing pots by the water tap.
Prepared to be shocked or perhaps awed by the sights and sounds of one of the biggest slums in the world, most of the tourists sign up for Reality Tours and Travel’s Dharavi walk out of a sense of curiosity.
Inspired by the favela tours in Brazil, Krishna Pujari intended his slum tours to be awe-inspiring when he set up Reality Tours with his British partner Chris Way back in 2005. 
“Normally people associate slums with poverty, danger and drugs. What they aren’t aware of is that there are more than 10,000 small-scale industries running in the Dharavi slum,” says Pujari.
“When I first went to Dharavi, I too had a negative perception. The commercial activities surprised me so much that I told Chris ‘we have to do this’,” Pujari adds.
Spanning more than 500 acres, Dharavi, in part made famous by the hit 2008 movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, is home to close to 1 million people in Mumbai. It also hosts a slew of industries, including recycling, tanneries and garment manufacturing. During the two-and-a-half-hour walking tour, tourists are taken to visit the industries, which Pujari says showcase the “positive side of the slums”.
While Pujari found Dharavi to be inspiring, its residents did not share his thoughts.
“I used to visit Dharavi with Chris. The people came up to me and scolded me, asking what I was doing bringing a foreigner here and telling me I should be taking him to the Gateway of India and Malabar Hill (an upscale residential area in Mumbai).
“The residents said the foreign tourists would go to the slums and take photos, making the world think that India was poor,” he explains.
Pujari was undeterred by the lack of enthusiasm in the community and began to make regular visits to Dharavi, even starting an English class for the local children.
“The first challenge was to convince the residents to allow tourists to come on a tour. I spent almost a month at Dharavi, getting to know the locals, telling them about the good intentions of our tour,” says Pujari.
It is easy to understand why the locals were less than lukewarm at the idea of foreign tourists intruding into their territory. Not only is it an invasion of privacy, but slum tourism is generally dismissed by critics as a form of voyeurism.
Reality Tours and Travel marketing director Nick Hamilton disagrees.
“We agree that slum tourism is controversial, which is why we are careful to ensure our tours are run responsibly,” he says, adding that the tours organised by his company are not in any way voyeuristic due to their objectives and the “best practices” they employ.
 “They are educational tours used to raise awareness about issues in slum areas and to break down negative stereotypes that have developed over the years,” says Hamilton.
In terms of best practices, Hamilton says photography during the tour is not allowed and tourists travel on foot and in small groups, the guides are locals and interaction with the community is possible throughout the tour.
“These points, taken together, make the tour anything but a voyeuristic experience,” Hamilton stresses.
After crossing the hurdles from local residents, Pujari and Way embarked on another challenge: getting the tourists to visit Dharavi. The duo put up flyers around town to promote the slum tours.
“On January 24, 2006, we took our first customer to Dharavi. An Australian girl went on the tour and told us that the visit was amazing.
“That was one moment that I’ll never forget. She said she thought the slum was dangerous initially, but after completing the tour, her perception had completely changed. I always go back to that day whenever we receive compliments for what we do,” says Pujari.
Through word of mouth and publicity in “Lonely Planet” and several other international publications, the slum tours began to gain popularity with international travellers. Pujari reveals that 80 per cent of profits from the tours are channelled to Reality Gives, a non-governmental organisation that funds development programmes in the slum community.
“India’s biggest problem is the lack of quality education. We have organised youth empowerment programmes, computer classes and started a kindergarten in the slum through Reality Gives,” says Pujari.
For their efforts, Reality Tours and Travel received the Community Award at the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) summit held in Madrid on April 15.
Pujari was almost in tears when he went up on stage to accept the award.
The success of the company is largely due to the unlikely friendship between him and Way. The duo first met in 2002 when Way was travelling in Mumbai.
Coming from a farming family of eight siblings, Pujari had left his home state Karnataka Mumbai at the age of 13 in search of his “Bombay dream”.
“Bombay (the former name of Mumbai) is the dream city. I followed my dreams to Bombay because I wanted to continue my education there,” says Pujari who attended night school after working at restaurants during the day.
Pujari first met Way at a restaurant where he was working. As he could speak English well, he was asked to take orders from the group of foreign travellers, which included Way.
Pujari met Way again the next day and he invited the latter to join the local lads for a cricket game. The duo became fast friends during the two months Way spent in India. Way then went to Brazil and organised a favela tour in Rio de Janeiro and suggested Pujari could do something similar for the Dharavi slums.
Looking back at his own success, Pujari aspires to help children from his village in Karnataka. “In the future, I want to go back to my village and live there. I want to help the children achieve my dreams,” he says.
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