Tuesday, May 09, 2006

'Slumming' Takes on a Whole New Meaning

[X-Posted at SM]

Via Albert Krishna Ali at The Other India, a Guardian article about a new tourism phenomenon in India: slum tours. It's apparently a common enough practice in places like Soweto and Rio, but new to India. For 200 Rupees, tourists get a guided tour of the areas around Delhi's railway station, where a few thousand homeless children live:

The tour guide instructs visitors not to take pictures (although he makes an exception for the newspaper photographer). 'Sometimes the children don't like having cameras pointed at them, but mostly they are glad that people are interested in them,' Javed claims, adding that the friendly smiles of the tourists are more welcome than the railway policemen's wooden sticks and the revulsion of the train travellers. He hopes the trip will get a listing in the Lonely Planet guides. Nevertheless there is something a little uncomfortable about the experience -- cheerful visitors in bright holiday T-shirts gazing at profound misery. (link)

Really, what could possibly be uncomfortable about well-fed tourists paying to gawk at desperately poor children?

The author of the Guardian article is definitely skeptical about the whole thing too:

By the end of the walk, the group is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the smells of hot tar, urine and train oil. Have they found it interesting, Javed asks? One person admits to feeling a little disappointed that they weren't able to see more children in action -- picking up bottles, moving around in gangs. 'It's not like we want to peer at them in the zoo, like animals, but the point of the tour is to experience their lives,' she says. Javed says he will take the suggestion on board for future tours. . . .

Babloo, who thinks he is 10, has been living here for maybe three years. His hands are splashed white from the correction fluid that he's breathing in through his clenched left fist, and he pulls a dirty bag filled with bottles with his other hand. His life is unrelentingly bleak and he recognises this.'I don't know why people come and look at us,' he says. (link)

The tours are run by Salaam Baalak Trust, which is a small charity organization focused on caring for homeless children in Delhi. They administer first aid as well as more serious health care help for children who have AIDS or serious drug addiction problems. They also give them basic education and vocational training, and help their families where possible.

In short, SBT is in general a good organization narrowly focused on helping a group of children living in desperate straits. This program makes money for them, but clearly the money and publicity come at the potential cost of the children's dignity.

According to Give World, Salaam Baalak Trust was founded by Mira Nair in 1988 to rehabilitate the slum children she used as actors in Salaam Bombay (hence the name, "Salaam Baalak"). I haven't quite been able to figure out how the organization got from Bombay to Delhi, but as far as I can tell they are now based entirely in Delhi.

The story of the group's founding provides a second layer of irony: this is an organization that was founded using funds generated by western voyeurism of Indian poverty (Nair's film), which is now pioneering the effort to reproduce that voyeurism in a brand new format.

I wouldn't go on the tour in its present form, but perhaps I would try and volunteer to help out with this organization in some way instead. And if tourists want to do more than just take pictures of the Taj Mahal or dance on the beach at Goa, I don't see why that should be frowned upon (especially if the money is put to good use). Is there a way to do it that doesn't involve mere voyeurism?


skid said...

hey deep, it's sid...isn't the voyeurism necessary? after all, if this program is to have any effect, it would seem like it would have to create an emotional response in people to do something, and the two best emotions i think to motivate people into helping would seem to be pity and shame. it's a sad truth, but i think even the Katrina situation demonstrates that...

in the end, i think there are harms that can occur to these children from this activity, but i think there can also be an attempt to shock people out of the more jaded view that Thomas Friedman keeps pushing on them: the third world is catching up, and really not that bad anymore, and America should be scared. A brilliant neo-con strategy I think, but one that certainly distracts people from exactly this type of concern...

anyway, got off topic a bit, but interesting idea...

12:49 PM  
Amardeep said...

Hi Sid, no worries about going off-topic.

A direct experience of poverty may be necessary to provoke somebody to get involved. But it needn't be quite in this form. The tours of Harlem that are fashionable amongst many foreign tourists are cultural/historical tours as well as "how the other half lives" voyeurism.

You could do something like that, for instance, with a tour of old Delhi that focused on the history of the Mughal presence in that part of the city -- and also directly addressed the povery. Another approach might be to have some kind of immersive, more participatory version of the current tour.

In short, there are things that can be done to break the "westerner looking at poor, homeless child" dynamic.

1:02 PM  
skid said...

Yes, but isn't this a self-selecting mechanism? After all, people who do come for pure voyeurism are not on the tour for another reason, like historical appreciation or curiousitly. For example, in Harlem, there is a tour run by Curtis Blow and others that's described as a "hip-hop" history tour. Presumably, the people who go on this tour, while being exposed to the poverty of Harlem, are more interested in seeing where Erik B got started than in being startled into donating to the Children's Defense Fund. In the same way, a tour of Delhi which includes historical sights as well as a "poverty experience" may include people willing to take action, or it may include people more interested in seeing Delhi. As for the more participatory version, I agree, that would be great, but even more self-selecting, by only including people who are willing, and who want, the "poor experience" or whatever marketing term they come up with.

I suppose in the end, my response boils down to a sort of uber-pragmatism...I agree that the voyeurism leaves me with a sort of queasy feeling, but am willing to accept it in order to force a confrontation between people who want to see this misery and the actual misery itself...

I should also point out that some great cultural/social changes have been a result of the dynamic you describe, as unfortunate as that may be. Bringing the attention of the affluent, however paternalistic and voyeuristic, was a motivating factor in the civil rights movement, and I believe one of Gandhi's tactics in the Indian independance movement. I think the link there is shame, and I don't know that shame can be imbued in people without something tangible to look at or feel.

2:00 PM  
Ms. World said...

I can't believe they really have slum tours in India! I know foreigners who do volunteer work in India may get tours of a slum as part of educating them about communities they may be working with. I'm very uncomfortable with this idea especially in India. I'm not trying to offend anyone, but unless you are in a very posh area in India (and they are plenty) or being lead around by tour guides on tour buses, you will usually see heart-wrenching poverty anyway.

I'm also not a big fan of taking photos of people without their permission. I kept away from that during my time in India. However, I had a lot of people imploring me to take photos of them which I started to do it at the end of my journey.

I would add that I had reservations about taking a Soweto Township tour when I was in Johhanesburg but a Black South African friend of friend urged me to take a tour since he had no time to show me around during the day. This person thought the tours were a good thing because they were educating people about the history & struggles of Black South Africans. They also helped the Soweto economy.

3:37 PM  
zp said...

and what about an affecting see-the-slums movie? where does that fit in?

4:49 PM  
Jonathan said...

I think the most important comment in the Guardian article is: "We've come to educate ourselves." This is hardly an exploitation business and the money apparently goes to a good cause.

6:07 PM  
Amardeep said...

I suppose in the end, my response boils down to a sort of uber-pragmatism...I agree that the voyeurism leaves me with a sort of queasy feeling, but am willing to accept it in order to force a confrontation between people who want to see this misery and the actual misery itself...

Sid, I'm more or less with you on this. I think they could tweak this to make it a somewhat richer experience.

In general, I'm supportive of what SBT is doing for these children.

8:20 PM  
apu said...

Perhaps they could undertake a ore participative tour, for e.g. where the 'tourists' undertake some actual work - there are many organisations which do "volunteer tourism" like this I think. Then again, they may have fewer people on board, but probably only those who really want to help, than just get a birds-eye view of poverty.

In any case like a commentor has said, if all you want to do is look at poverty, you dont need a tour for that. A ride on the harbour line at bombay will do.

2:41 AM  
Matto said...

Does any sort of voyeuristic confrontation necessarily render itself as confrontation? The very concept of a tour seems to be an aestheticization of poverty and the slum. Much as I find the discussion interesting, I am still very cynical of any sort of grounded change coming from reproducing the third-world habitat as commoditized image...and it is an interesting point of comparison with film. The most effective films on subjects of poverty, injustice, et al would ideally be those that include some notion of permission and active participation on the part of those filmed. In this case, I simply doubt the efficacy of emotion "generated" on the basis of viewing subjects of poverty.

11:26 AM  
skid said...


I am curious what you mean by "grounded change." That term seems to have many connotations, and some of them make it sound perjorative.

However, I do agree with you that the kind of change people may want won't be created by these tours. Still, in the end, any minimal benefits, considering they are measured in lives saved, are worth it right? And I think that no matter what, there would be something donated out of this if not simply out of shame.


you're probably right, there is more that they can do to ensure this is less like a zoo and more like "Scared Straight."

12:52 PM  
Matto said...


I mean nothing more than change grounded within the lives of the people it seeks to affect, or in other words, participative change.

2:06 PM  

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