Foreign tourists visiting slums in Mumbai when on vacation is a decade-old phenomenon. But, now, schools from the city have started taking their students in the narrow alleys of Dharavi, to give them a sense of how the poor live in Asia’s biggest slum. More than 10 such school tours have been organised this year.
The “season of slum tourism” began in October, according to Reality Tours and Travel, which is the only operator to take school students to slums across the city. “In the past, we have arranged tours for foreign schools along with a few local ones. But this year, the response from local schools has risen,” said Stephanie Hays, chief executive officer, Reality Tours and Travel. Hays is a US national who lives in Mumbai.
The two-hour long tour, conducted on foot, takes students to the slum’s many small business and recycling units, followed by residential enclaves and leather-processing workshops, and finally to a community centre run by the travel company, where the Dharavi residents learn vocational skills.
BD Somani International School, Cuffe Parade; Fazlani L’Academie Globale, Mazgaon; and Oberoi International School, Goregaon, are some the schools that have opted for such tours in the last six months, said Hays.
Students from Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Bandra, also visit Dharavi for various service projects in association with NGOs, said a spokesperson of the school.
Declan Sharp, Geography teacher at BD Somani, who has accompanied four batches of students for such tours, said the tour gives the privileged students a taste of living conditions in slums. “We use case studies on slums to supplement the learning of several topics in the syllabus, and the tour helps in its practical application,” he said.
Oberoi School, which first took Class 9 students on one such tour last year, said the idea was to make students experience a vibrant economic community, which generates a vast income, creates jobs and succeeds in the face of hardship.
“Our students returned with respect for the entrepreneurial attitude and peoples’ ability to raise themselves up,” said Anne Murray, a teacher who accompanied the batch, in an email reply to HT. Murray admitted the students were shocked by the living and working conditions of slum dwellers, but added they were also surprised at how much they had in common with children their age.
Jeetesh Kotian, who completed his bachelor’s degree last year and is one of the 15 guides associated with the operator, said the experience of guiding foreign tourists, who make 90% of the company’s clientele, is unlike that with students. “For local students, the tours are more educational in nature compared to that for foreign nationals,” he said.
While the schools argue the tours help children get lessons in survival, the practise of slum tourism itself is controversial, with critics accusing companies of turning poverty into entertainment. Psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty, who works frequently with students, said he was fine with schools going for such tours as long as they take an initiative to work towards slum empowerment. “Along with educating students about poverty, schools should also save some seats for slum kids. Otherwise this practise is superficial.”