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Should We Slum It?

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

— Saishreya Sriram and Raghu Raj

“There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.” - Victor Hugo

Besides to avoid becoming victims of bitter monotony — the urge to travel has somehow almost always been synonymous with comfort, luxury and our lust to explore and experience more of the enigmatic “unknown.” But when did that start accommodating the idea of “slum tours” where willingly venturing into congested, contemptible and narrow streets — reeking of the inequalities and inadequacies of their inhabitants, suddenly become so inviting to wealthy visitors?

Despite the surge in popularity of slum tourism (more colloquially known as Slumming) in the 90’s and its widespread prevalence today — the practice dates back to the 19th century, where upper class Londoners and New Yorkers used to temporarily abandon their sedentary bourgeois lifestyles to go on mini excursion trips to impoverished and squalid parts of the city to experience abject poverty, observe contrary worldview — and for some, quite fiendishly, it just translated to ogling at the state of destitution.

Presently, and unsurprisingly, it is countries in the global south — India, South Africa and Brazil to where such tours (in flowery scintillating packages) are being marketed and organised by NGOs and local private agencies.

Contrasts and Curiosities

But why would one specially pay to be privy to abject poverty? Well, it’s probably the same reason as to why even this article was born — curiosity for and clarity gained from more information. In this case, increasing number of tourists are seen to be inquisitive about exploring polar ends of their conditions and cultures — in a way that not only creates more awareness, but also that may induce feelings of empathy in their issues and initiative in advocacy for the same.

Yet this ideal view of their virtues is balked at by many to be illusive. Critics comment that at the end of the tour, the slum dwellers are made to feel just like “zoo animals” and that this curiosity of visitors may after all be just their voyeuristic indulgences— not value-driven in any way.

Dharavi: Eyesore or Attraction?

This drastic tilt in tourism today has certainly garnered more attention towards Asia’s second largest slum. Visitors (and even most locals) are eternally in absolute awe of how the area that occupies a plot half the size of Central Park— is home to around 1 million residents currently (apparently six times as dense as Manhattan). Capitalising heavily on Dharavi is Reality Tours and Travel — the tourist service that caters to about 15,000 tourists annually.

But ironically enough, their spotlight is not centred around the squalor and daily struggles of the residents — but more on the “spirit” of Dharavi, in being a highly successful and productive example of an “informal economy” — with an annual turnover of over $665 million.

In her interview with the Harvard Political Review, Melissa Nisbett, the author of The Case of New Labour, commented on the tours, saying “poverty isn’t just normalized, but is romanticized” by them.

Analysing their TripAdvisor reviews, Nisbett found how most visitors described the slum dwellers as “resilient”, “resourceful”, “enterprising” and “energetic.” But they didn’t stop there. They even went on to proclaim how they were (perceived to be) “living quite happily” and proving how “your life circumstances don’t define you.”

These “guided” tours, thus manage to misguide visitors, and misrepresent poverty by conveniently not displaying glaring concerns of residents’ poor sanitation, unequal access to education, health services and not even by pointing out rising crime in the region or their ridiculously low wages.

Perspective or Pleasure?

Driven by the self serving monetary fetish, these voyeuristic and perverted tendencies innate to the slum tourism industry, have become startlingly more noticeable (and acceptable) since the advent of globalisation. They seemingly seek to reduce people into simple one-dimensional personas of their real life complex identities.

This entails glossing over and conveniently ignoring the uncomfortable, disturbing realities of life, observed on part of both the organizers and participants—propagating a deeply exploitative behaviour; an utter failure to comprehend or empathise with conditions of those striving for basic sustenance; and engagement in purposeless self indulgent and hypocritical pseudo-intellectual natterings.

There’s parallelism that exists between the slumming culture and the celebrity one, albeit the only glaring difference being — for the former, it is always of fleeting nature and ends up being primarily about deriving pleasure from this tryst with poverty. However, with the latter, one perpetually and wishfully longs to climb the rungs of social hierarchy to permanently immerse oneself in that lifestyle. Unfortunately, all this culminates into the reinforcement of the entrenched divisions prevalent in the society and further deteriorating the chances of an egalitarian, exploitation-free community.

However, one shouldn’t disregard the obvious theoretical benefits that might stem from undertaking such an exploratory expedition to let’s say a Rocinha (largest favela in Brazil), Soweto (in South Africa) or even a Dharavi. But rather than being instantly “inspired” at a tour curated to minimise the actuality of poverty, one must carefully and collectively weigh in how the tour may belie or even betray what it should technically stand for. But ultimately, in our opinion, the ethical argument against such an excursion still holds strong.

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