When I first went to Dharavi I wasn't wearing my middle-class-gawker glasses. I was researching a story on successful businessmen and already knew the sprawling slum was host to industries ranging from plastics to pottery, tanneries and bakeries. I knew there was serious money involved and also that the slum once tagged the largest in Asia (currently, the Orangi township in Karachi is the largest, according to the United Nations) is no longer even the largest in Mumbai.
The UN defines a slum as a run-down urban area, "characterised by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security". While these characteristics do exist in the 557 acres that comprise Dharavi, that the definition is inadequate becomes apparent as soon as you set foot there.
Which brings us to the other question – if you could avoid it, why would you set foot in a slum? Yet a whole lot of people are doing just that, and paying for the privilege. There are at least four tour operators within Dharavi that offer guided tours, charging between Rs 500 to 2500 per head, depending on whether you want a private tour or travel in a group. There are no clear figures, but based on operator estimates, in 'season' – roughly from the end of October until March – Dharavi has thousands of visitors.
Call it the Slumdog Millionaire effect, or just that old thing, curiosity. People have always wanted to discover the lives of the 'other': the phrase 'slumming it' comes from members of the upper class touring poor neighbourhoods in London and New York in the nineteenth century. Indian cities have no dearth of squalor, poverty or insecurity. Mumbai has slums, or slum-like conditions, in almost every suburb. But what distinguishes Dharavi is its unique economic ecosystem. The poor don't just go there to sleep. They create wealth.
Krishna Pujari, who runs Reality Tours and Travels, lived in the Prateekshanagar slums for two years but says that Dharavi offers a unique experience. He says since 2006, when he co-founded the firm, Dharavi has changed. "Slum policies are changing too. People also work for BPOs, MNCs, hotels. There are schools and hospitals. Infrastructure is better but nowhere close to good. And we get more and more tourists. Perhaps, people are developing a social conscience. Or maybe they are just intrigued."
This curiosity is not always appreciated though. Pujari himself admits it was hard at first. "When Chris Way, one of our partners, first visited Mumbai, I took him to Dharavi. People said, 'Take him to Malabar Hill or the Gateway. Why are you bringing him here to show off our poverty and filth?' So, I asked, 'Do you think you are poor and dirty?' They said, no. I said, 'So, let him see that you're not'."
Since then, resident tour guides have taken a measure of pride in 'their area'. Fahim Vora, 24, says that when he was first approached to be a guide, he baulked. "I felt, 'What? Bringing those people to my area?' But I did it once, and realised that nobody really minds."
Fahim was working with Reality at the time but soon developed independent ambitions. Along with partner Tauseef Siddiqui, he set up 'Be The Local' in 2010. Now they employ other Dharavi boys, mostly college students, as tour guides.
Pujari trains English-speaking students for a month on the history and economic spread of Dharavi. He says he prefers to take students "from humble backgrounds" and also works with government schools and local teachers. The firm also supports some NGOs either through money or the use of their space and skills. They help fund a girls' football team. But the tour itself, he says, is like an empowerment program for young people who cannot find jobs.
The guides agree. Despite 'knowing' English in theory, Fahim couldn't draft a coherent email until he started the job and Tauseef didn't have the confidence to talk to people until his first tour. For students, there's some pocket money to be made and the chance to meet interesting people. Nilesh Vaidya, a student who has worked with Reality for six months now, says that he has grown from being a shy, silent type into an aspiring radio jockey. Since he lives in the Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat area, his learnings have been greater. "I came here for an interview, and that was my introduction to Dharavi. I'd heard of the filth and the bhai-goondas (goons, often those with mafia links). But now I say every Indian should visit this place once," he says.
But few Indians do. Even those who live an easy cab ride away are uncurious, perhaps nervous about going into a slum. Deepa Krishnan, who organises tours through Mumbai Magic, says she gets at least 500 visitors a year but most are overseas tourists, ranging from "upscale" to backpackers.
Some like Emily Lawrence, 20, already have some exposure. "I'd seen a documentary. It looked interesting and I was curious." She'd never seen this sort of slum in the UK, but conditions were better than expected. "I was surprised by how people live together in these cramped spaces and are still so organised. I didn't expect that."
And then there are visitors like Anna Wagner, 22, who takes Bollywood dance lessons in Austria. She wanted to see the city where the films get made but she also wanted to find out more about Dharavi. To her surprise, the streets were not full of people begging on the streets. "They are all working," she said, adding that she wishes her Indian host, who lives in Mumbai, would visit too. "More upper and middle class Indians should go. It is more important for them."
There are Indians who do visit slums on work, of course, but they'd rather not go as tourists. Suman, a volunteer at a social school (name changed, because she prefers to remain anonymous) is critical of this "exhibition of misery". She believes that instead of sensitising them, slum tours merely gives tourists something to talk about at home. "It's an ego boost, making them feel blessed because they don't have to live in such conditions." She was particularly riled by a note on the Internet (posted by 'Bollywood Tours') that says 'their life is full of struggle for existence but still make them happy'. Suman wants to know, "How can they be happy? There is a don in every lane; the men are crippled by bad habits and they force their women to work and bring home money to buy more booze... Slum tours show none of this. For God's sake, these people are not freaks or animals in a zoo that we need organised tours!"
People certainly don't want to be seen that way, which is why most tour companies have a no-photo policy. Rajesh Prabhakar, a researcher who co-founded the Red Press and Media, and a life-time resident of Dharavi, says that people have become especially sensitive after the movie Slumdog Millionaire. "They still hurt about being called 'dogs'. Besides, the depictions of life were false. That toilet scene, for instance, belongs to the 1950s, not the '90s," he says.
Some parts, according to Prabhakar, were shot guerrilla-style, which makes people suspicious of cameras now. Recently, a friend of his was interrogated in the Rajiv Gandhinagar area when he was out shooting without permission. When hutments near an important water pipeline were demolished last year, residents believe it was because of foreigners taking pictures and the media publishing them, though it turned out the municipality did so for different reasons.
On my first visit, attempts to discuss the fruit business with a banana vendor were firmly rebuffed. But I did have a long, rambling conversation with L. Kannan, who runs the Murugan Laundry. As I sipped on a bottle of cola (which he insisted on), he gave me the shop's history, living conditions – the lanes are so narrow that if you have a medical emergency and an ambulance needs to be brought in, god help you – and his hopes for his sons. All along, his hands were busy, ironing.
On that trip, I'd been led by Prabhakar, who doesn't do conventional tours. "I take people to meet people. I don't take them to pre-decided spots. I take them to families. I can arrange for you to spend a few hours just talking to a potter, for instance. But if you say you want to do a tour tomorrow, within two hours, I can't do that."
The debate about the ethics of slum tourism is an old one. Some claim that it helps to bridge the psychological divide between rich and poor. A Wall Street Journal article has talked about how 'philanthropic travel' – that seems to be politically correct term – is growing, with large international travel firms diversifying into slums. But it poses the question of whether this could help 'bridge' the gulf of understanding between rich and the poor, especially if the traffic is one-way. Surely, the poor too must be allowed to see how the rich live, and where they work?
The question is interesting but perhaps, a bit unfair. After all, the upper classes in India areexposed to the scrutiny of slum residents who work in their homes or offices. It is the reverse which almost never happens. Tour operators believe that they are helping tear down negative stereotypes. In fact, Deepa Krishnan emphasizes, "This (Dharavi) is not a 'slum' tour. If you are expecting extreme poverty and despair based on movie depictions, you will be disappointed."
Even in Indian movies, locals complain, Dharavi is represented as squalid and dangerous, full of dons, drunks or drug addicts. But the young men who work as tour guides insist that the problem is no larger than it is elsewhere in Mumbai. It is just that Dharavi's problems have nowhere to hide.