Arwin Burns, a Dutch tourist, walks out of a Faridpuri slum damp with sweat after three hours of treading the bleaker streets of west Delhi. He, along with three others, is a participant in a “slum walk”, on which tourists are guided through slums for a fee to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of poverty.
Everyone on the walk is 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. “Those issues become a lot worse because of the monsoon. Disease will spread, garbage will spread.”
PETE (Providing Education for Everyone), a charitable organisation in Delhi, tries to install water tanks, build shelter and provide education in poverty-stricken areas. To raise money, they began conducting slum tours three months ago.
“I took a city walk with (a non-profit that does similar tours) in Paharganj and saw that they were only going to the city,” says Shiva Chapra, head of PETE.
Chhapra says the R300 fee for the tour goes directly to tour guides, who are slum residents themselves, for water tanks, a roof for their school, and other means to help the community.
Some, however, such as Humae, say improvements are taking too long. “No change has taken place yet, and we think it will take another one-and-a-half years to see things progress.”
Slum tourism is growing worldwide. Tours are appearing all over the world, from the Dharavi area of Mumbai, to favelas in Rio de Janeiro and townships of Cape Town. This has led to much controversy, especially in the international media.
“Where there’s good, there’s bad as well; you cannot satisfy everyone,” says Chapra. He believes that if more critics see what the organisation is doing, “how the money’s been used for the projects, for the kids and for the community,” they may reconsider their positions.
“This slum walk tour is funding a school for these people and trying to give these people a better life,” 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, Dr Fabian Frenzel, a researcher at the University of Leicester, is undertaking a study to investigate whether slum tourism makes a beneficial impact, or is “merely some cynical form of entertainment”.