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Want to see Mumbai’s underbelly? Take a guided tour!

October 18, 2007

I never thought that Dharavi could ever be a tourist attraction, inspite of it being Asia’s largest slum. 😯 Well, it just shows how ignorant one can get about what’s happening in one’s own country…!

I found out there are actually organised tours to Dharavi! And there has been a fair amount of press coverage too. Though even now I am not sure why tourists might be interested.

Apparently Prince Charles and ex-President Clinton started the trend. They had Dharavi and other slum areas on their itinerary (not to simply gawk I am sure)…and Gregory David Roberts, who wrote the novel Shantaram, (a part of which was set in the mumbai slums) gets some credit too as interest in Mumbai’s slums increased after it was published.

A travel agency promoted by a former British social worker takes tourists on a guided tour of Dharavi, Kamathipura, (the city’s red-light area), and Dhobi Ghat. The picture below is of Mumbai’s dhobi ghat.

Dhobi Ghat by the way, has always been a tourist attraction. In fact foreign tourists have gone gaga over the unique experience. Now, why did I ever think that the dhobi ghat was a boring place…? Could it be because I used to pass it on the way to school every day (in Pune)? The picture below is the dhobi ghat in Pune. Small compared to the Mumbai one…

Mumbai’s dhobi ghat has been termed by a westerner as a “vast al fresco washing machine.”

But let’s be fair to Dhobi Ghat…it is the largest laundry in Asia after all. Half a million items washed a day. What?? 😮

That was my reaction too…and there are some videos to prove it!!
[Video 1]
[Video 2]
[Video 3]

By the way, dhobis are not at all averse to a the gawking…in fact last year they demanded that the municipal corporation give the ghat a shine to improve tourism!

Unfortunately, the days of the dhobi ghat might be numbered. It’s not just Dharavi which is all set to redevelop into swanky multi-storied buildings. Dhobi Ghat is in danger too as the dhobis do not own the land, and builders are eyeing it. 😕

Are slum tours ethical?
While taking a tour of the Dhobi ghat may be alright, taking a tour through a slum, peeking into people’s misery, is a concept that makes me uneasy. It’s different if one is a researcher, a writer even, or a social worker…but to simply go and stare? As it says here:

It is a matter of disgrace for any society that claims to be a civilisation to mint money by exhibiting poverty and exposing slum dwellers to the pity of tourists. These residents are forced to exist in uninhabitable conditions because of mismanagement by the authorities. We should at least spare them the ignominy of being reduced to objects of pity.

Slum dwellers don’t seem to mind it, but does that make it right? But I know that I would never ever go on a slum tour, whether here or in any other country. We are a poor country and no one is denying it…but to make an exhibition of the poverty?

(The aerial view of Dharavi as well as Pune’s dhobi ghat are photos taken by me. The one of Mumbai’s dhobi ghat is from and the one inside of the slum is from dna )

Related Reading: The positive side of Dharavi
An aerial view of Mumbai city
Indians are the one of the most hardworking people in the world
Instead of making the rich poorer lets make the poor richer
Government officials used slum development funds to fatten their perks!
Plans to rid Mumbai of slums by 2015

All posts about Mumbai

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. October 18, 2007 9:55 am

    There is dignity in any work. This is especially brought home by the video of the man who is following generations of his family in this laundry business – he has dignity. It would be a shame to subject people such as him to the gawking of tourists. People who work are not a form of entertainment. I would have hated having tourists come by and watch me collecting and burning garbage at an oil plant when my husband was in first year Law School and being a cleaner was the only job I was able to obtain. it was work that sustained my family, and there is a certain dignity in that. It is not so long ago that I did our own laundry by hand and hung it to dry in our yard. My own mother did laundry by hand, as was necessitated by living. Hand laundry will be practiced in the world everywhere for a long time to come. There is a certain beauty to how it is organized and carried out in Pune and Mumbai, that is for sure. G

  2. October 18, 2007 10:04 am

    On the ethics of slum tours: If slum dwellers are getting some or all of the money – and they do not mind – I think it might be ok.

    But I bet they do not get any money…

  3. October 18, 2007 10:38 am

    how dumb! how can we breach others privacy like that!

  4. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    October 18, 2007 10:47 am


    As one who has done fieldwork in slums, I would hesitate to stand in judgement about the ethics of such things. If people are visiting just out of morbid curiosity, in order to gawk, I would certainly condemn it. If, on the other hand, it sensitises them to the miserable conditions in which a significant proportion of people in India’s big cities live and work, and moves them to do something about it in a sustained and constructive way, I am all for it.

    I agree with Shefaly’s point about whether or not the slumdwellers benefit from it, but would go a step further and ask what are the motivations of those who organise such tours. Is it just to line their own pockets or also to do something for the slums? It would actually be a good idea to get high school and college students, from India as well as abroad, to do a few weeks of committed voluntary work in such settlements while being attached to, and guided by, genuine social service organisations.

  5. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    October 18, 2007 10:50 am


    Your point on breaching people’s privacy is valid. But isn’t this also what social researchers and field workers are doing? Ultimately it all boils down to whether there is an intention to do something as partners of the underprivileged or just to enrich one’s own “experience”, “exposure”, “database”, whatever.

  6. October 18, 2007 12:47 pm

    Nita, what I was gonna write has been summed up by…Vivek when he says “If, on the other hand, it sensitises them to the miserable conditions in which a significant proportion of people in India’s big cities live and work, and moves them to do something about it in a sustained and constructive way, I am all for it.” I am all for it.

    I have a reason to say that. There is this walk that is organized in Delhi where two guys who were themselves street urchins living at New Delhi Railway station show you the nook and crevice of station..point out lives of street children..several foreigners are there..and you know proceeds of this trust Salaam Baalak Trust goes to charity and evokes sensitivity that words alone do not do..watching it in real does it sometimes…thats ad part but that is true..

    But yes I condemn gawking at other people’s misery as entertainment. Sensitivity is a requisite.

  7. October 18, 2007 1:39 pm

    Nita…I just saw your videos..I have visited Mumbai..Rajiv Gandhi made Dharavi famous for me…I perhaps subconsciously knew abt this dhobi ghat…as you see in Mumbai movie..but these videos were informative for me as well..who is an resident Indian…

    I would hate to see so many livelihoods threatened in the name of development. I guess dhobis were right to get that shine.

  8. October 18, 2007 4:25 pm

    Suburban, thanks. Yes definitely there is dignity in all kinds of work, and if tourists can appreciate that, I guess there is no harm in touring dhobi ghat. I can certainly see how it can be interesting for someone who has never been exposed to something like that. Generally I think there is respect for hard labour in western countries…

    Shefaly, they aren’t getting any money, although a part of the proceeds go to some organisation which helps slum dwellers. Well, one doesn’t know how this money is being used.

    Vishesh, yes my first reaction was the same! 🙂 But like Vivek said, it depends….

    Vivek, travel agencies will do it for money. This is capitalism at it’s best. 🙂 At it’s best because some money is being given to charity!

    Poonam, I agree, seeing “other people’s misery as entertainment” is not ethical…not in my eyes either. True, if it motivates people to do something about it, it’s fine….but as voyeurism, no. I wonder how the travel agency can be sure of that though…perhaps they have programmes to sensitize people first!
    I am glad you enjoyed the videos. 🙂

  9. wishtobeanon.. permalink
    October 18, 2007 7:22 pm

    Are slum dwellers given any compensation when their slums are demolished? This is another example of the lack of respect for less fortunate human beings!

  10. October 18, 2007 8:26 pm

    What is a dobi ghat? Is there one in every city? It looked like it was some kind of open air laundromat.

  11. October 18, 2007 9:11 pm

    That’s what it is Justin. Each dhobi has his own stone.
    These open air laundromats where clothes are washed by hand probably do exist in most cities, particularly in south and western India, but the sizes differ. You have many mini dhobi ghats.

  12. October 18, 2007 10:11 pm

    hmm…yes Vivek,but it should be left them to decide if they want to change..what i mean is if you can do it by calling everyone ,talk to them…then naturally the few who want to talk will come..

  13. October 19, 2007 3:13 am

    Once again, you’ve opened my eyes.

    The first video was especially moving when the man said he had a doctorate in ancient studies, and that his sons would always have the family business as a last resort if their intellectual pursuits don’t work out for them.

    Instead of bitterness, the man saw his job as a blessing. Still, I felt for him.

    I was annoyed with the tourist in the second video. He sounded so banal. As if anyone cared about who washes his clothes….

    True, there is dignity in all work. Maybe we should all serve a while in a hard job like washing clothes. Even heads of state. Instead of passing through to see the work, pitch in.

    I’ve had tough jobs, and I’ve never been ashamed. Like Suburban, I wouldn’t want someone staring at me like a zoo animal.

  14. October 19, 2007 8:05 am

    wishtobeanon, slum dwellers get a ready made apartment in place of their small hut. But it’s a big racket which you can read about here.

    Thanks Christine..I would feel exactly the same. I don’t even like anyone looking at me when I am on the pc. 🙂

  15. October 21, 2007 4:48 pm

    commercialization to the core I guess.

  16. October 26, 2007 4:11 pm

    Both in the US and in a third world country.

    Not everyone is uniformly miserable, in slums. In fact, I’d say the percentage of miserable people is about as high as it is everywhere else.

    Some folks are happy, some are sad, some are content, some are not. Just like everyone else, with a bit less money (in most cases – not all) than you and I.


  17. December 9, 2007 11:51 am

    Health and sanitation conditions in Dharavi are even horrible than conditions in small villages. I live in Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh where nearly 87% of people live in rural areas. More than 70% of the population of my district are employed in agriculture. Though our district is economically backward district, cell phones work in many of our villages and rural middle class peasants also own individual bath rooms and latrines. I was informed that Dharavi doesn’t have proper sanitation and owning individual taps equals to luxury in that slum area.

  18. February 4, 2009 11:27 pm

    Just a note: the videos on this page are showing this error “ERROR: this video does not exist” but when clicked they take you to YouTube and play normally; I checked it in two browsers! I guess the error is temporary.

  19. Roshini permalink
    February 6, 2009 12:59 pm


    Just an FYI, all the money collected from these slum tours are invested in a trust that does work for the slums. So in a way it is just another way of earning money to help develop the slum, which is a great thing. Atleast someone is being proactive and DOING something to help out these people rather than sitting back and commenting. Just a thought…


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