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Next Stop, Squalor

Is poverty tourism "poorism," they call it exploration or exploitation?

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The Dharavi squatter settlement in Mumbai is often described as the biggest slum in Asia. It sits between two rail lines in the northern part of the city, on a creek that once sustained a thriving fishery. The creek is now a sump of sewage and industrial waste, and the air above Dharavi is foul.

By one estimate, the slum is home to 10,000 small factories, almost all of them illegal and unregulated. The factories provide sustenance of a sort to the million or so people who are thought to live in Dharavi, which at 432 acres is barely half the size of New York City's Central Park. There is no discernible garbage pickup, and only one toilet for every 1,440 people. It is a vision of urban hell.

It is also one of India's newest tourist attractions. Since January of last year, a young British entrepreneur, Christopher Way, and his Indian business partner, Krishna Poojari, have been selling walking tours of Dharavi as if it were Jerusalem's walled city or the byways of Dickens' London. There seems to be a market for this sort of thing: almost every day during the recent December holidays, small groups of foreign travelers, accompanied by Poojari or another guide, tramped through Dharavi's fetid alleys in a stoic quest for...What? Enlightenment? Authenticity? The three-hour excursions are slated for mention in a forthcoming Lonely Planet guide, and they cost about $6.75 a head—more if you want to go to Dharavi by air-conditioned car.

Poverty tourism—sometimes known as "poorism"—did not originate in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). For years, tour operators have been escorting foreign visitors through Rio de Janeiro's infamous favelas, with their drug gangs and ocean views, and the vast townships outside Cape Town and Johannesburg, where tourists are invited to mix with South Africans at one of the illicit beer halls known as shebeens. A nonprofit group in New Delhi charges tourists for guided walks through the railway station, to raise money for the street children who haunt its platforms.

But the Dharavi tours have been especially controversial. In a lengthy report last September, the Indian English-language Times Now television channel attacked them as an exercise in voyeurism and a sleazy bid to "cash in on the Ôpoor-India' image." That report was followed by a panel discussion in which the moderator all but accused Poojari of crimes against humanity. "If you were living in Dharavi, in that slum, would you like a foreign tourist coming and walking all over you?" he sputtered. "This kind of slum tourism, it is a clear invasion of somebody's privacy....You are treating humans like animals." A tourism official on the panel called the tour operators "parasites [who] need to be investigated and put behind bars," and a state lawmaker has threatened to shut them down.

The critics, it seemed, had claimed the moral high ground. But could they hold it?

One sunny morning this past December, I met Christopher Way at Leopold's Café, a popular backpackers' hangout in Mumbai's bustling Colaba district. At 31, he is boyish and bespectacled, with a thatch of tousled brown hair and a thoughtful, unassuming manner. Over glasses of freshly squeezed mango juice, he told me that he grew up near Birmingham, England, and after graduation from Birmingham University, set off on a path to become a chartered accountant. But Way was afflicted with chronic wanderlust. In 2002, he visited Mumbai and liked the city so much that he stayed five months, volunteering as an English teacher and cricket coach in a local elementary school. He subsequently took an extended holiday in Rio, where he signed up for one of the favela tours. Although frustrated by the guide's lack of knowledge about the shantytown, Way says he found the experience fascinating. It occurred to him that he might be able to do something similar in Mumbai.

As many as half of that city's 18 million or so residents live in squatter settlements, so there was no shortage of potential venues. But Dharavi, as the largest and most established of Mumbai's slums, was the obvious choice. Way's idea was to showcase the settlement's economic underpinnings in a way that would challenge stereotypes about the poor. "We're trying to dispel the myth that people there sit around doing nothing, that they're criminals," he said after we had walked across the street to his office, a grubby, windowless space barely big enough for his desk and laptop computer. "We show it for what it is—a place where people are working hard, struggling to make a living and doing it in an honest way."

To smooth things out with local bureaucrats and Dharavi residents, Way needed an Indian partner, and he found one in Poojari, now 26, a farmer's son who had migrated to Mumbai as an unaccompanied 12 year old and put himself through night school by working in an office cafeteria. The two men formed a company, Reality Tours & Travel, and bought a pair of air-conditioned SUVs. Way bankrolled the venture with income from rental properties he owns in England. Besides the Dharavi tours—which can be combined with visits to Mumbai's red-light district and Dhobi Ghat, a vast open-air laundry—the company offers sightseeing of a more conventional nature, along with hotel bookings and airport transportation. Way has pledged that once the company starts making a profit, it will donate 80 percent of its slum-tour earnings to a charitable group that works in Dharavi. "I didn't want to make money from the slum tours," he says. "It wouldn't have felt right."

Except on its Web site (Leopold's Café—"See Dharavi (the biggest slum in Asia)"—the company does not advertise the slum excursions. But as word has spread over the Internet and by other means, business has grown steadily, drawing visitors from around the world.

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