This is where the slum people go toilet,” says the guide in his broken English, pointing towards an open land behind the Metro wall that hides a slum in West Delhi.
He is taking a foreign couple who are there to explore the ‘real India’. The slum is popularly known as Kathputli (puppet) colony for the inhabitants are poor artists who belong to different communities from Rajasthan, Gujarat and other states.
The guide is the co-founder of the organisation called PETE (Providing Education To Everyone) Trust which runs a school and vocational centres for women.
But slum walks seem to have become their bread and butter and puppeteers of Kathputli colony their puppets.
Slum tourism sparked off ethical debates across the globe when it started in Mumbai’s Dharavi few years ago, with news reports in international publications and issues raised in the first international conference on slum tourism in Bristol, UK in 2010.
However, these concerns didn’t stop it from coming to the Capital with at least three organisations doing slum walks — mostly catering to foreigners.
“I wanted to see the real people and have a good cultural experience,” says Tyrone Skipper, 41, from New Zealand.
Under a thatched roof both guests sit on chairs as kids of a school run by PETE — who are on a summer vacation — dance and sing folk songs to Justin Bieber’s song Baby fluently.
There is a long tradition of interest in slums. Tourists visited London and Manhattan slums in 19th century.
In South Africa guided tours for whites were organised to educate them about black townships.
“With globalisation and localised tourism, foreigners have started looking for specific local experience leading to an expansion of slum tourism,” said Fabian Frenzel, lecturer, University of Leicester who has done research on ethics and politics in global slum tourism.
Armed with cameras, the guests peep around door-less homes as the guide explains how slum people live, eat, sleep and shit.
Consent is of no concern and privacy is secondary, as they walk gawking at women washing clothes or cooking to naked kids taking a bath outside.
In popular cinema, films like City of God and Slumdog Millionaire have reinvigorated interests in these slums making them a ‘must visit’ destination.
In places like Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa, travel agencies have incorporated slum tours in their packages.
Travel websites like TripAdvisor are filled with reviews of these slum walks and their operators. ‘I think this is another face of India, a face poor and dirty but with a loud voice claims its rights and better living conditions,’ writes Giorgio G, from Italy recommending PETE’s slum tour.
One Sara Umber from Chicago terms Art of Hope’s (a commercial start up operating in the same slum) tour as ‘should not be missed’.
Fahim Vora, 24-year-old resident of Dharavi started his own Be The Local Tours with his friends, also residents of the slum. Vora had earlier worked as guide with Reality Tours and Travels, a similar organisation which won the Responsible Tourism Awards 2012 and claims to put 80% of the profit back in the community.
“The walks help dispel the negative image of Dharavi and benefit locals,” said Vora. Even if done responsibly, slum tourism can’t provide livelihood to the entire community, but only a few. “The key question is whether slum dwellers find these tours unethical. Contrary to the popular belief, slum dwellers of Brazil’s favelas didn’t find the tours to be intrusive,” said Frenzel.
Two hours into the walk, the tired couple — visibly overwhelmed with the reality they came looking for — decides to cut short the tour. They pay the guide and leave, hoping the money finds it way back to the community.