Is it Ethical to go on a Dharavi Slum tour in Mumbai?

Dharavi – rightly or wrongly – is one of Mumbai’s most famous areas, and for many visitors to the big city, a Dharavi slum tour is on the bucket list. Post slumdog millionaire fame, tour companies have been quick to cash in on the action, and tours are now widespread. Can these slum tours do any good? Can they help give back to the community and have a positive impact? Here I look at my Dharavi slum tour experience and questions to ask before visiting Dharavi. 

Going on a Dharavi Slum Tour, Mumbai.

“City tour, see outdoor laundry, slum tour??”

Were the cries of hopeful / would be travel agents that greeted me on my recent wanderings around Mumbai.

There are a few parts of the world that seem to have become famous for the insights that they offer into the living conditions of those below the poverty line: Rio, Cape Town, and Mumbai—home to what is marketed as Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi.

Slumdog Millionaire is a little different in reality.

But one thing’s for sure: “Slum Tourism” features prominently on the mainstream tourism agenda in Mumbai: Dharavi slum tours are offered all around Colaba.

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Dharavi Slum Tour Review: Reflections from Two Years On.

Since originally writing this post in 2017, Dharavi has shot up even more in the tourism hall of fame. Shockingly, in 2019 travel site Tripadvisor claimed that Dharavi had beaten the iconic Taj Mahal to become India’s most popular “attraction”, or “favourite destination of those coming to India”.

The reality is a little more nuanced, as “popularity” for this purpose seems to be determined by an algorithm known only to Tripadvisor. But be that as it may the headlines packed quite a punch.

More than a few Mumbaikers and Indians were outraged by the fact that their country had become better known for slums than it’s timeless (and beautiful) monument to love. And personally, I can see why. I don’t think I’d like to see the same for London.

As tours of Dharavi have boomed, it has become more and more important to choose to support an ethical company if you choose to visit.

Ethical slum tour Dharavi, Mumbai
Photo courtesy of Reality Tours & Travel

The Ethical Dilemma of “Slum Tourism” and of Going on a Dharavi Slum Tour.

Like many, I have mixed feelings about so called slum-tourism. The debate is heated and can be highly divisive. On the one hand, Slum Tourism projects can raise awareness of poverty and the still-growing gulf between rich and poor in our world. Slum-tourism can generate needed revenue and deliver it directly back into city communities that need it the most, thereby allowing tourism to directly serve as a force for good, and deliver economic benefit directly to those most in need.

But the question is, is this what is really happening?

On the flip side those against such tourism argue that Slum Tourism places the most vulnerable of our world at risk, is little more than putting those in poverty in glass cages for us to oggle and photograph as we pass by. This type of tourism is also highly open to exploitation—is the money raised actually being used in a way which benefits the majority of the people at all, or just lining the pockets of a select few.

Personally, my biggest objection to visiting a slum is: how would I feel if this were to happen where I live?

Would I appreciate a load of tourists trapseing through my home Instagramming away? Possibly not.

Mumbai Dharavi slum walking tour
The rooftops of Dharavi, Mumbai – c.Reality Tours & Travel

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Searching for an Ethical Slum Tour of Dharavi

I deliberated a lot about whether to visit Dharavi. I went back and forward in my mind for days about it. There were no shortage of options for a Dharavi slum tour. I could have booked a slum tour with about six different companies, hotels or individuals that offered me their services.

Before reaching Mumbai I’d read a lot about Dharavi and the pros and cons of visiting.

In the end, I decided to go on the basis that I find it difficult to form an opinion on a topic that I have not seen for myself. Seeing that Visit.Org, who I (edit: used to be an) ambassador for (they have since changed their business model and do not sell experiences to the public), were offering the opportunity to visit Dharavi with local NGO Reality Tours and Travel, I decided to give it go.

Reality Tours and Travel reinvest 80% of all revenue from Tours into community projects in Dharavi Slum via Reality Gives.

You can watch more about the mission and work of Reality Travel & Tours in this video:

What was visiting Dharavi Like?

At the time of booking the tour, I was told about Reality Tours and Travel’s strict no camera policy. Something that helped gain my confidence, for the reasons mentioned above. Unfortunately this is not the same with all operators offering the chance to look around Dharavi, and is a key reason that Reality stand out. All photos in this post are courtesy of Reality Travel & Tours. 

I met our guide at Churchgate local railway station (riding the Mumbai local train network is a whole experience in itself and not to be missed!) who then took us by train to Dharavi. Before going in we were given some history about the slum, and allowed to take some photos from the railway bridge before going into the slum (once we were in, no photos).

We’d be visiting two parts of the slum: the industrial part, and then having lunch with a family in the residential part of Dharavi.

It’s this that makes a visit to Dharavi different than visiting a more “typical” slum. 

Once inside we visited a plastic recycling junkshop, a welders, a bakery, and even some leather factories (goat and sheep hides, not leather from cows for obvious reasons…). Industry in Dharavi is huge and the annual turnover of industries in Dharavi is a staggering 665 million USD each year. 

Eighty percent of Mumbai’s plastic ends up in Dharavi’s junk shops for recycling alone and Dharavi is the heart of small scale industry in Mumbai. 

Ethical slum tour Dharavi Mumbai
Plastic and other recycling inside Dharavi’s commercial area.

On our walk around, our guide explained that the residential part of Dharavi is a very popular and sought after place to live, and that many of the labourers from outside of Mumbai who come to work in the Industrial part of Dharavi cannot afford to live in the residential part, so instead they often sleep on the factory floors in the industrial side of Dharavi.

We were a small group of 4 including the guide which made moving around the narrow alleyways of the slum easy—moving around in a larger group would have been a much more challenging proposition, and this is definitely something to bear in mind when planning a visit to Dharavi.

After seeing the industrial part of the slum, we then crossed over to the residential part for lunch. We did not walk much around the residential area of the slum, but instead went straight to the home of the family we would have lunch with, on the edge of the residential slum.

Our guide, a Dharavi resident was very proud of living there—there are waiting lists of several months to live in Dharavi, and renting a small place there will cost as much as 4,500 rupees (67 USD) per month. Cheap by Mumbai standards—which has some of the most expensive real estate in Asia, but as much as a modern one bedroom apartment in other smaller Indian cities.

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Ethical slum tour dharavi mumbai

The residential part was full of dense but very well kept dwellings—all cleanly swept and meticulously cared for. Compared to other slums in India—and other countries—Dharavi is clean, benefits from running water and electricity and has even been called “middle class” in comparison to other slums. One of the few reminders that we were in fact in a slum were the open sewers and smells, where the waste water went straight into a small river right outside the slum. The sight of which was a pretty rude awakening.

Inside the slum however, kids happily played cricket in a communal playground area.

We had a simple lunch of Dal, rice, vegetables and chapati with a family. This is one of the ways in which Reality tours and travel gives back to the Dharavi community, by rotating families that visitors can have lunch with and paying them for it, also allowing visitors to see something of life inside Dharavi.

Our tour finished up at one of Reality Travel’s community centres which has been set up to teach children and adults English, computer skills—funded by donations to Reality Gives and proceeds from the Tours.

Dharavi: Not your regular Slum

Dharavi is unique in that a large part of the area is dedicated to industry. Dharavi is definitely not your regular slum. And it is this, that I found makes it a different proposition to visit than other slums in India or in other countries.

People living in Dharavi are incredibly proud to be living there, and rightfully so. My guide, and everyone else whom I spoke with at Reality Tours’ enthusiasm and passion for Dharavi was as clear to see as it was contagious.

Dharavi occupies prime real estate in Mumbai, India’s most expensive city and financial hub. Dharavi is relatively well off, and its main points of interest are in its Industrial centre, rather than the part where the majority of its inhabitants live.

Ethical Slum Tour Dharavi Mumbai
 The residential part of Dharavi – which we did not do much exploring of. Reality Tours & Travel.

Was I “right” to go on a Slum Tour in Dharavi?

I was very impressed by what I experienced with Reality Tours and would highly recommend them.  I would NOT, however recommend going to Dharavi by yourself or with other operators. Here’s why:

In short, if you use Reality, you know that your money will be going back into Dharavi. With other operators that is not likely to be the case.

  • I was impressed by my guide’s knowledge and respect that everyone we met inside Dharavi had for him. All the staff that I met from Reality was extremely professional and passionate about what they were doing.
  • 80% of tour revenue is put back into Dharavi through opening community centres, offering computer science and language classes to residents, and other community projects
  • No photography is allowed – and so the privacy of those living in Dharavi is respected. Reality Tours do give you a link where you can download their photos of Dharavi (free of charge).
  • The tour does not involve much walking around the residential part of Dharavi.
  • Dharavi is much better off than some other slums, so those living there are not those who are in desperate need or extremely poor, making them less vulnerable.

Ethical slum tour Dharavi Mumbai
Cardboard recycling in Dharavi – Reality Travel & Tours.

How Reality Travel Gives Back to the Community in Dharavi

Through it’s not for profit division, Reality Gives, Reality tours and travel reinvests 80% of their revenue from tours and other sales into the Dharavi community. Reality Travel hires local guides who are from / live in Dharavi, thereby ensuring that it directly creates jobs in the community, and also the trust of fellow Dharavi inhabitants as the tours are run by their own people vs outsiders.

Several community centres in Dharavi have now been opened, offering a range of classes and facilities for children and adults alike. A particular focus is on helping girls’ education.

How to Evaluate Slum Tourism

Although I would recommend this tour, I would not recommend Slum Tourism overall.

I am glad I went to Dharavi because I felt that it was very different than other slums. I would NOT visit Dharavi using a company that did not have a responsible tourism model in place and did not reinvest a large amount of their revenue into the community. I would also not visit Dharavi on my own.

In Dharavi, there were several other companies offering tours, but these companies were not reinvesting into the community, they were allowing photography of the slum, and they were just generally capitalising on the amount of interest in Dharavi. Personally, I would also not go alone to Dharavi, as I would be concerned about not respecting peoples’ privacy without a proper guide, although everyone has different views on this.

When slum tours don’t give back to the community, they are essentially just profiting on the poverty of others. 

Questions to Ask Before Going on a Slum Tour

If considering going on a slum tour, here are some of the questions I would ask myself:

  • What good is my presence there going to do? (in this case contributing financially to Reality Gives)
  • What measures are in place to manage the impact of tourism in the slum? – Has the impact been thought about
  • Does the company I am going with have a responsible/sustainable travel policy
  • Where is my money going? is it benefiting the slum community and how?
  • Are photos allowed?
  • What are my motivations for going?

The last question was one I asked myself for a good few days. In the end, I realised that my main motivation for going was to be able to form an informed opinion about “slum tourism”. As it turned out, this was not “slum tourism” in its typical form, but seeing the work that Reality Tours does has definitely helped me to understand more about the pros and cons of the subject.

Like many issues related to responsibility or sustainability of tourism, there isn’t necessarily a black and white answer. All we can do is try and support initiatives who are genuinely trying to use tourism as a force for good.

Have you been on a slum tour in Dharavi or else where? What were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below. 

Looking for hotels in Mumbai? I recommend Abode Boutique Hotel – read more here.

Editorial: I was not hosted on this tour in Dharavi (I paid for my tour in full) and as usual all opinions are my own honest reflections. 

Read more about Travel in India on Soul Travel Blog:

Mumbai Travel Guide

How to Deal with Culture Shock in India

The Best Places to Visit in India, For Every Month of the Year

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Should you go on a Dharavi slum tour in Mumbai, India? Read our important guide to the ethics of slum tourism and the search for #responsibletravel alternatives in #india #traveltips

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