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NGO finds opportunity in slum walk

Arwin Burns, a Dutch tourist, along with three others, is a participant of a "slum walk", on which tourists are guided through slum areas for a fee to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty in the streets of West Delhi. Daniel Boltinsky reports.

delhi Updated: Aug 08, 2012 13:56 IST
Daniel Boltinsky

Arwin Burns, a Dutch tourist, walks out of the Faridpuri slum damp with sweat after three hours of treading the bleaker streets of West Delhi.

He, along with three others, is a participant of a "slum walk", on which tourists are guided through slum areas for a fee to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty.

All four members of the group are parched. The searing dry weather foreshadows the coming monsoon, set to complicate life for the countless slum residents passed on the tour.

"There is a water problem, an electricity problem, and the road condition is not up to mark," says Arjun Humae, a resident of Faridpuri, near Patel Nagar.

"Now that everything has been broken down, the situation will be a lot worse, as disease will spread, garbage will spread."

PETE (Providing Education for Everyone), a charitable organization in Delhi, tries to install water tanks, build shelter, and provide education in poverty-stricken areas. To raise money, they began holding slum tours three months ago.

"I took a city walk with Salaam Balaak Trust [a non-profit that conducts similar tours] in Paharganj and saw that they were only going to the city," says Shiva Chhapra, head of PETE.

"The people on the tour wanted to see the slum, but they were not experiencing that. So that time I got the idea for the slum walk."

After the tour, participants are asked to pay Rs. 300 each. Chhapra says it goes directly to tour guides, who are slum residents themselves, for water tanks, a new roof for their school, and other means to help the community.

Some, however, such as Humae, say improvements are taking too long.

"Till yet no change has taken place, and we think it would take another one and a half years to see things progress." He and many others in the area will likely face at least one more monsoon season without a reliable source of drinking water.

Slum tourism is growing worldwide. Tours are appearing all over the world, from favelas in Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Cape Town, and this increase has led to much controversy.

News outlets have been critical or at least ambivalent about the trend. A headline earlier this month from The Telegraph (Australia) proclaimed "'slum walks' walk a fine line." A CNN article published in May asked readers whether the concept is truly about learning or "simply gawking."

"This slum walk tour is funding a school for these people and trying to give these people a better life," Arwin Burns says, explaining why he chose to pay for this particular experience. He says he may consider taking part in another such tour again, but only if "it also provides for the people and not only [the company] themselves."

In light of this debate, a study has been launched by the University of Leicester. Dr Fabian Frenzel, who will be doing the research, hopes to investigate whether slum tourism makes a beneficial impact on the areas concerned, such as Burns and Chhapra insist PETE does, or if the activity is "merely some cynical form of entertainment".