By: Sapna Nair-Purohit Photo Credit: Manoj Patil Dated: October 01, 2014
A place that was once infamous, is becoming a hot tourist destination for foreigners and Indians too. A bunch of tourist operators are bringing the ‘good’ part of Dharavi out in the open, one that elicits more ‘awe’ than ‘eww’.
Until a few years ago, Dharavi was synonymous with filth. ‘Asia’s largest slum’, ‘leather haven’ and ‘a refuge for the underworld’ are some of the other titles it has been bestowed with, over time. But its fortune changed, thanks to the Hollywood movie Slumdog Millionaire. One scene from the movie put Dharavi on the tourism map and on the bucket list of many foreign tourists. Dharavi became their idea of ‘real India’.
The Local Touch
Foreign tourists have always been obsessed or intrigued with India’s poverty, call it a case of Schadenfreude or genuine empathy.
Reality Tours and Travel was the first one to launch a ‘slum tour’. Interestingly, it is run by a foreigner. After the movie, many other such tour operators came up – Be The Local, Mumbai Magic to name two. Other big names in the tours and travels sector such as Thomas Cook also organise tours of this nature, with the help of the locals.
So as not to make it seem voyeuristic, these tour operators employ the locals as tour guides and some even claim to give back part of their earnings into the development of Dharavi.
Be The Local is one such tour operator founded by Fahim Vora and Tauseef Siddiqui, both born and brought up in Dharavi. Vora was employed as a guide with another tour agency, but quit because the money earned was not being used to help Dharavi or its people, he suspected.
Be The Local started in 2010, with the idea of dispelling the negative image of Dharavi and showing the place from the locals’ perspective, unlike “how people think it is or how the media portrays it,” Vora says. He talks of how foreigners think a slum like Dharavi is full of poor and unskilled people.
"But when they see Dharavi they are surprised because it is so different and so much better than other slums they may have seen in other parts of the world," he states. Be The Local hires students from Dharavi as guides. "We pay them well and this helps them continue their education. So it is a win-win," he says.
Dharavi, Vora informs, houses many entrepreneurs and billionaires. International MBA schools have a compulsory Dharavi visit in their curriculum to learn about entrepreneurship. “People from difficult backgrounds have become entrepreneurs. There is an old man from UP who worked as a helper in a garment firm. He came here as a kid and started working, learning and saving. Today, he is a billionaire. He makes products for domestic and international markets. When you see from atop, Dharavi looks like hordes of shanties, but when you come in you can see and hear the positive stories. There are things to be learnt from this place,” says a confident Vora.
One of those things is recycling – you see people work in terrible conditions turning any and every piece of plastic in to a form that can reused, thereby saving the environment a whole lot of damage.
Vora gets tourists from US, UK, Australia and even India. A lot of students of Architecture and Mass Media come for visits, as do corporates. In fact, one such corporate visit from Intel made them famous across the country. Intel made their story into a touching video which created a lot of flutter on social media (more than 3.2 lakh views on YouTube). “It was a great advertising medium for us. It went viral. A lot of Indians started coming for the tours after the video,” he says, adding that foreigners are their real target audience.
We went on a short Dharavi tour that lasted two and half hours. The first thing that hits you when you enter the place is how cramped and dirty it is. And yet, people, workers, students, businessmen go about doing their jobs. It is abuzz with activities – men transporting raw materials, trucks jostling for space – everyone looks like has a job to do.
As our guide led us through the mucky, dirt-laden pathways of Dharavi, it was difficult not to marvel at the many industries and businesses that exist in this area measuring 535 acres. Not all of them are pleased with the unsolicited attention they get from the ‘inquisitive tourists’, some refuse to be photographed, while others happily pose.