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Next Stop, Squalor

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

For one thing, almost no one asked for money, or even tried to sell me anything. Only once was I approached for a handout, by an elderly woman. That was a big change from Colaba, the main tourist district, where it is difficult to walk more than a few steps without being accosted by a beggar—usually a young woman with an infant on her hip—or a peddler hawking laminated maps. Perhaps people in Dharavi were simply too busy. And some of them clearly had rupees in their pockets. Besides the food stalls and handcarts piled high with okra and squash, there were video parlors showing Bollywood hits, several bars and, on one thoroughfare, a spiffy-looking electronics store plastered with Sony decals.

"They're happy to be here," Poojari said as we paused outside a small factory where women were stitching bluejeans. "They don't want to move out of Dharavi." I don't know about "happy," but on the latter point, Poojari was probably correct.

Because of its prime location—on rail lines near the heart of one of the world's most crowded cities—Dharavi sits on valuable real estate, and its residents are not about to give up their stake. The slum is the focus of a looming showdown with municipal authorities and developers who want to turn it into office towers, luxury apartments and shopping centers. Families that can prove they have lived in Dharavi since 1995 would be entitled to a free apartment in the same area, but the new dwellings would be so small—just 225 square feet—that many prefer to stay where they are. Nor is it clear what would happen to the thousands of businesses that provide Dharavi residents with jobs.

We finished the tour on the side of a busy four-lane road, where the festive sounds of a Hindu wedding ceremony—apparently the one the potters had gone to—spilled from a gaudy tent. We paused to peek inside, and I spotted the groom sitting awkwardly beneath an enormous gold turban. No one gave us a second glance, and I had to wonder about the motives of those in the Indian media and elsewhere who claimed on behalf of the Dharavi residents to be offended by the tours. Surely their ire could have been better targeted at the municipal authorities who had failed to provide the community with basic sanitation. I wondered whether the critics weren't simply embarrassed by the slum's glaring poverty—an image at odds with the country's efforts to rebrand itself as a big software park. In any case, it seemed to me that the purpose of the tour was not to generate pity, but understanding. That's not to say that it made me an expert—I was only there a few hours, after all. Were the people I saw in Dharavi the victims of globalization, or its beneficiaries? I still don't know. But at least the question had been raised in my mind.

John Lancaster recently completed a four-year assignment as the South Asia correspondent for the Washington Post. 

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