Offbeat India Tours | Poverty Tourism/Tours in India

The case of the Slumdog Millionaire

The world discovered Dharavi in Mumbai because of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” The film, which won the coveted Oscar Awards, in fact substantially enlarged the scope of guided tours into Asia’s biggest slum. To Mumbai dwellers, however, the idea of poverty tourism or slum tourism or poor-ism is nothing new.

One might know Dharavi from the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” There was a perceived tendency on the part of the film maker to present Dharavi as a filthy, sprawling shantytown. Not the kind of place one would want to visit while on a holiday in Mumbai.

Dharavi, a large hub of 50 odd squatter localities, is located east of Mahim and Bandra. Rough estimates reveal that the Dharavi conglomeration contributes more than US$500 million, maybe upto US$1 billion to the Mumbai metropolitan economy. The slums of Mumbai are densely populated by a wide variety of resourceful recycling units, as also a flourishing textile and tanning industry.

Since 2006, a travel operator, an enterprising young British expatriate in partnership with a local Indian man, has been offering visitors to Mumbai a chance to tour the Dharavi area of the city, dubbed “the biggest slum of Asia.” Self-professedly, the tour operators want to illustrate the authenticity of life there, while dispelling the falsehood that the destitute there are indolent or vulnerable, but are extremely self-motivated people working hard to improve their lot.

New Delhi

A prominent New Delhi based NGO organizes a City Walk Tour, quite brazenly. Every morning, a young boy guides a dozen odd visitors into the labyrinth of lanes surrounding the New Delhi railway station.

This teenager, a former street kid himself, appears to be very well aware of what he is talking about, as he has himself experienced the dangers and challenges of living by one’s own wits in the dark underbelly of a megalopolis like Delhi.

Wading through the bylanes of Paharganj, ‘poor-ism’ for travel enthusiasts takes one into ‘real’ India and is being popularly described as Slum Tourism, which peeps into the living horrors of nearly 2,000 street children in Delhi.

The tourists come in batches and both domestic and foreign tourists are lining up to take a peep into this world. However, as this is an organised tour, it is priced at Rs 200 a ticket and spans over two hours on a chosen day.

Former street dwellers take the tourists from the platform through makeshift homes under footbridges and end up in the bylanes of Paharganj while the guides explain how the children live, what they do for a living, and where they sleep.

The pros and cons of slum tourism

Today poverty tourism is being practiced all over the world — from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas to South Africa’s townships, from Nairobi’s Kibera to Mumbai’s Dharavi — charging tourists a small fee to see how the other half lives. In case of Mumbai, it can be literally termed the other half as almost 55 percent of its population survives as unlawful residents in settlements like Dharavi, which houses about one million of them, nicknamed as Asia’s largest slum.

The conundrum was summarized very well in an op-ed published last year in the New York Times: “They get great photos, we lose a piece of our dignity,” writes the author, a former resident of Nairobi’s Kibera slum, who goes on to chide tourists for mistaking their mere presence in the area as helping residents in any way.

Usually, when somebody thinks of slums, one visualizes slums as inhabited by the homeless, dislodged and the marginalised. However, in case of Dharavi, this is far, far away from the reality. Mostly, Dharavi inhabitants are enterprising, pioneering, and strongly motivated. A community where people lead rich lives in poverty.

Poverty Tours in India

Slum Tourism in India

Poverty Tours in India

Many tourists from all around the world visit the slums of India to take pictures of children suffering from malnutrition and adults struggling to make ends meet. These tours are called poverty tours in India. Poverty tourism can be perceived as referring to small tours that offer city walks for the tourists through the pits of Indian slums.

The term Poverty tourism has come into vogue recently. Though the term sounds like sheer voyeurism, but in case one tries to dissect the phenomenon a little more deeply, the different facets of poverty tourism make it much more complex.

Though poverty tours thrive in most countries of the world – even in developed countries, e.g. there are similar tours in the immigrant region of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, or even in comparatively deprived African-American inhabited areas of Houston or New York – the most prevalent tours are those bound for the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, or the shanty towns in South Africa, or the Dharavi-like squatter settlements of India, particularly in large cities like Mumbai. Some of these tours are in operation for as many as the two decades, albeit quietly, without any media campaigns.


Here’s a view on the poverty and tourism debate from somebody who hasn’t experienced poverty: while inaugurating the 28th FITUR tourism trade fair in January 2008, the chief guest Spain’s King Juan Carlos observed that promoting tourism into poverty-stricken countries is not just interesting or desirable, but necessary:

“Tourism is a driver of understanding between peoples. It is an effective instrument with which to eradicate poverty and to improve the legitimate aspirations and well-being of citizens.”

However, concerned citizens fear that poverty tourism could well become a more mainstream activity, and avaricious tour operators might commercialize this sector too, by directing their large air-conditioned buses filled up of boorish tourists clicking hundreds of pictures, thus sounding the death knell of the last vestiges of decency, so far perceived.

After Adhyatma, Ayurveda, and adventure sports, this could perhaps be the new dubious face of tourism in India.


Rahul Gandhi – the unwitting tour operator

The concept of Poverty Tourism was unwittingly given a fillip by Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Discovery of India’, when he escorted the then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to a village Semra in his parliamentary constituency Amethi on 14 January 2009. Showing around the non-descript dalit village, Rahul regretted that foreign dignitaries often avoid travelling to such places. After a day-long hectic schedule, the two young leaders stayed overnight in the hut of a poor dalit woman Shiv Kumari and had interaction with other dalit women of the self help groups (SHG) there, nearly 30 km from Amethi. During the interaction that continued for more than an hour, Gandhi acted as a translator to Miliband.

Howsoever glamorized, it was still India’s poverty on display for the benefit of a leading British political figure, courtesy the Congress party’s heavyweight. Later, Miliband wrote in his blog while leaving for Amethi: “800 million Indians live on less than 2 dollars a day, 450 million on less than 1 dollar and I will get a chance to see some of the gaps that exist between metropolitan middle class India and the rest.”

The flustered dalit hostess, Shiv kumari later confided to the media, “I had nothing to share with the VIP visitors except my poverty.

Lampooning this ersatz experience of a slice of the “Other India,” a blogger in London’s Telegraph newspaper later wrote: “As political stunt-making goes, this must really take the gold chapatti award for international humbug.”

Go to Top