Slum tours: Is this what you really want for your kids?

23:26, Jul 28 2013

American Kenneth Bae will spend the next 15 years of his life rotting in a North Korean jail. His crime: taking pictures of starving North Korean children. An unusually harsh sentence by a totalitarian regime? Not if you compare it with what happened to Marissa Alexander.

Last year, Alexander, an American middle-class woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot in a confrontation with her abusive husband at their home in Jacksonville, Florida.

You laughing now? Neither am I. People like Kenneth Bae belong to one of the following classes - one, investigative journalists and two, those who take vicarious pleasure in other people's misfortunes.

Taking adventure too far

Sue H., a Howick-based store owner, visited India 14 years ago on an extravagant tour that took her to the palaces, forts and luxury hotels of the country. ''It's a unique place and I want to take my children there next time,'' she says.

But wait, Sue won't be taking them to the same places she visited. You see, during her visit she also caught snatches of India's underbelly - the slums. Strangely, that seems to have left a more lasting impression on her than the progress and industrialisation of the country.

She told me she wants to expose her young impressionable children to the ''other side'' of India. ''I want them to see how the poor live there, so they can realise what a wonderful country we have back here,'' she says.

Thomas W., a Belmont businessman, says New Zealand youth should look at the way India's poor live so they can better appreciate the quality of life available in New Zealand.

Kim, a Birkenhead business owner, says she travelled to India a few years ago with her adult daughter and now wants her grandchildren to make the OE (overseas experience) to the country. You guessed it, for the slum tour.

Monique, a Christian missionary, is of Indian origin. Last year the Aucklander went to India on some unholy business - to save Hindus from eternal hell. She told me she was ''appalled by the poverty'' in Rajasthan, a western Indian state.

Now, Rajasthan is actually a place famous for its spectacular forts and palaces, stunning valleys and hills, picture perfect desert landscapes and achingly beautiful women. The people of Rajasthan are ferocious fighters; so while most parts of India came under Islamic rule for nearly 700 hundreds years and later British rule for 200 years, Rajasthan was able to keep its independence to a large extent. It doesn't have the poverty caused by colonialism. It's not a place where you'd expect Mumbai-like slums.

I asked Monique where she stayed during her trip. ''At a five star hotel,'' she said in an unguarded moment, adding, ''Wow what a lavish time I had there.''

So here's an evangelist who should go and commiserate with the poor but instead chooses to live in style and preach from her well-padded pedestal. Because she belongs to an American church I asked her why she shouldn't be saving the 50 million Americans suffering from chronic hunger

She didn't have an answer but instead rolled her eyes skyward and kept up a steady refrain like she had seen a ghost, ''Oh my god, India's poverty is on a totally different level.''

But hunger pangs are the same everywhere. ''There really should be no starving Americans because it's the world's wealthiest country,'' I said.

But she wouldn't hear me out because how dare an Indian question the greatness of America. Clearly, she felt the Americans were an already saved people; it's we pagans of Asia who need to be saved from hellfire.

Growing industry

The likes of Sue and Monique are people I met in the normal course of life. I didn't prod them to provide their valuable opinion; all of them started bombarding me with their unsolicited views.

Initially, I thought this was a rather tiny industry comprising random business people (plus the odd missionary) with more time and money on their hands than they knew what to do with. After all, wouldn't Kiwis rather go to Australia's sunny beaches and England for their OE? Or if they have a few more dollars to spare and a bit of gumption, they go to the United States. Why would middle class Kiwis spend thousands of dollars to stare at poverty?

But in fact this segment of travellers is growing. It is not a niche industry as I thought; it is growing in several countries, including New Zealand.

Horrific reality tours

One of these poverty peddlers is Reality Tours & Travels. Based in Mumbai it is co-founded by Krishna Pujari of India and Chris Way from the UK. Chris is the brains behind the company, which offers guided tours of India's largest slum - Dharavi. He first came to India in 2002 to do four months of volunteer work at a school that served children living in slums. According to his bio on the company website, tourism is ''beneficial for local communities''. So in 2004 he relocated to India to start the project that would become Reality Tours and Travel.

            Picture perfect: There are much better places to visit in India, such as Kochi on the west coast.

Well, it's 2013 now and let's see if the slums have turned into glitzy IT parks. Surprise! They haven't. Perhaps people like Chris are driven by a perverted sense of mission and believe they can change the world, but in reality (no pun intended) they change nothing. Or perhaps they are driven by colonial guilt. It's hard to tell.

On these guided slum tours, tourists - mostly from Europe but occasionally other affluent parts of the world - are taken into poor people's homes. Says the website: ''When passing through the residential spaces, you will undoubtedly feel the sense of community and spirit that exists in the area. People from all over India live in Dharavi and a tour through its narrow alleys is quite an adventure - you will leave with an enlightened sense of the purpose and determination that exists in the area.''

Yeah, right.

Cheap and easy

Coincidentally, such tours are happening in tandem with the economic recession in many Western countries. As living standards plummet in the West, people just don't have the money to go to luxury hotels in Hawaii or Disneyland or a ride on the Palace of Wheels train in India, which incidentally costs around $9000 per person for a seven-day trip.

So a $1600 economy class return ticket to Mumbai or Kolkata seems like a good idea. Plus, you can do a lot of shopping as the dollar goes a long way in India, where food and non-luxury hotels are cheap as chips. Holiday sorted.

Young and restless

Recently I met a 20-something girl who had spent three weeks in India, doing what the members of this niche industry do best. She did a lot of travelling there, and no the Taj Mahal was not in her itinerary.

I asked her why she wanted to look at the country's underbelly when there were so many wonderful historical places, such as ancient temples, ruins of ancient cities, and pristine beaches and picture perfect holiday towns she could have gone to. India, after all, has the highest number of cities older than 3000 years. In fact, the ancient Greeks used to call India ancient.

She didn't have an answer. She mumbled that India was chaotic and that's what she wanted - something different. Of course, she didn't say what her parents would have said - ''better appreciate New Zealand'' - but it seems that was it.

Another young journalist I know read my article on the futility of charity and wondered why she shouldn't send money to India. She said her friend had just returned from a trip there and she totally agreed the country was hell on earth. In as many words.

I wonder if these people live under a rock. I mean, when I click on Indian websites I can't miss the chatter on various big-ticket projects. Yes, there's the ever-present mega corruption scandals but there's a tonne of news about the moon and Mars missions as well as epic scales of construction only topped by China.

Some time this year, the country will touch a billion mobile phone connections. The Indian economy is already the third largest in the world after the US and China. It is the consumption levels of Indians - and Chinese - that is influencing prices of basic necessities like food, milk and fuel around the world.

But apparently these people do not read the news, and if they do, they conveniently ignore such inconvenient truths. Report such as landslides in the Himalayas and food poisoning in schools get top billing. It's a bit like TV3, which is notorious for filming poverty in developing countries almost with a missionary zeal. I don't know if they are giving the people what they want or growing a market for such yellow journalism. But it's not honest reporting where you have an unhealthy obsession with a country's poverty.

Big on everything

The thing about India is that with over 1200 million people, everything is on a giant size. An Indian writer who lives in Auckland once quoted a figure by Oxfam that India has more poor people that Sub-Saharan Africa. It was for an article in the rag called the New Zealand Herald. Such figures indeed shock readers - and influence editors - so perhaps the writer was right on the money.

But what organisations like Oxfam won't tell you - and what most journalists don't get - is the entire population of Sub-Saharan African is smaller than India's largest state.

Also, Africa's chronic food shortages and AIDS epidemic kill people, keeping the population stable, whereas Indians keep multiplying because food and jobs are aplenty, even if quality housing is not so plenty.

A colleague once told me he and his wife wanted to see the Indian railway system, which is the world's third largest. The reason, of course, is the core of the Indian railways was built by the British. I told him the railways were built by the British not to develop India, but to transport troops and cash crops more efficiently. Indeed, wherever the railways were built, it destroyed the local economy, and created famines as had never been witnessed in the at last 10,000 years of the country's recorded history, killing millions. The colleague gave up the idea after he heard my side of the story.

Slums: Failure of India's democracy

As well as being a collective failure of the Indian republic, slums are a huge eyesore in Indian cities. The primary reason is that democracy and India's legal system allow these people to occupy prime real estate in India's cities.

Besides, they serve as vote banks and a huge source of illegal money. Slumlords collect weekly rent from dwellers, shops and businesses, and this money travels the entire loop - from the beat constable to the middle level cops, and from the local politician to the coffers of leading political parties. Any crusading political leader who's keen to remove the slums and build quality housing will be told by his lower level leaders: ''If you want to lose the next 10 elections, go ahead, demolish the slums.''

The only people who can remove these slums are the powerful real estate developers who see billions of dollars worth of prime real estate go waste. (For comparison, the price of a tiny two-bedroom apartment on the 15th floor in an inner Mumbai suburb will fetch you a luxury home in Remuera - Auckland's richest suburb.)

Although, that will be a slow process and will take decades as the proposals to demolish these slums grind their way through India's ponderous bureaucracy.In the meanwhile, let's not forget the poor have their dignity. It takes a perverse mindset to feel better about your own condition after seeing someone else's misery.

However, if that won't dissuade people from taking the underbelly tours perhaps it's time for a new a law modelled on the North Korean one. Fifteen years in jail - that should be enough deterrent for the Sue's, Monique's, Chris's and Pujari's.


Rakesh Krishnan's articles have been used as reference at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; the Centre for Research on Globalization, Canada; Wikipedia; and as part of the curriculum at the Anthropology Department of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. His work has been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Oped News, Pennsylvania; and Rossiyskaya Gazeta Group, Moscow, among others.