27th March 2012

Travelling first class to Mumbai, via Abu Dabi, by UAE’s luxury airline, Etihad, is a wonderful experience, but I could scarcely describe it as a sobering one. As an unreconstructed Scot it’s not in my DNA to refuse a free drink. I’m also a sucker for a pretty face and was brought up to respond to good manners. So when the smiling supermodel hostess constantly proffers selections of fine wines, good food and assorted treats...well, the plane is just starting to level out as the third glass of vintage champagne slips down.

Fortunately, the equally charming and attentative staff at Mumbai’s Four Season’s Hotel pick me up at the airport and whisk me to my suite on the twenty-first floor. It’s almost four in the morning, and it strikes me that I’ll soon be standing in the middle of what’s arguably the urban world’s most run-down and diseased zone, trying to get a handle on what’s called ‘slum tourism’. At this stage, I haven’t a clue whether it’s a voyeuristic holiday in other people’s misery, or an essential education, illustrating the terrible conditions other human beings have to endure. Although the ride from the airport showed me that the streets outside are lined with the poor and sick, who just seem to sleep where they fall, right now I’m happy eschew such deliberations, hit my welcoming mattress, and enjoy a blissful slumber.

The next morning I open my blinds in this fortress of unadulterated luxury (the Four Season’s bedrooms are as chic as I’ve experienced and the level of service second to none) to a fantastic view stretching across the west of the city to the Arabian Sea. It’s Slumdog Millionaire territory, evoking the closing section of the film, where the new India of modern apartments for an emergent high tech, meat and dairy-eating, whisky-drinking bourgeoise, runs alongside the vibrant, tin-roofed shanytown incongruously spilling out below me, instantly recognisable from previous travels to Kolkata and Delhi.

The air is already dense with sounds of music, firecrackers and car horns bouncing up from the streets. The citywide street party is nothing to do with the elections in the world’s biggest democracy, which commence tomorrow, but commemorates the draftsman of India’s 1950 constitution, Dr Babasheb Ambedkar, who championed the upliftment of the poor. This neighbourhood, Worli, has a deserved reputation for enthusiastic celebration.

I’ve read fairly extensively on India over the years, but my recent cultural references are shamefully ubiquitous; Danny Boyle’s triumphant, multi-Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, and Aravind Adiga’s exceptional victorious Booker Prize novel, The White Tiger. Both works are about the persistence of poverty in defining the transition of modern India; one a joyous escapist fable, the other a devastating counterblast against some of the smug assumptions that underpin the economic miracle.

Least we forget, 55% of Mumbia’s 18 million citizens live in it’s two thousand-odd slums. I’m off to visit Asia’s biggest one; our guide, Krishna Pujari, runs Reality Tours, escorting mostly white Westerners around the district of Dharavi. We cross a metal footbridge over rail lines, into a low-rise settlement crushed inbetween a wedge of railway tracks, with a million souls squeezed onto a paltry 432 acres, about two thirds of London’s Soho district.

Poverty, particularly in West, has been ideologically associated with sloth and indolence since the industrial revolution. Dharavi, a hub of constant activity and home to around 15,000 small businesses, instantly dispells this myth. I’ve never seen so much constant, back-breaking, mind-numbing, work going on. In cramped and dangerous workshops, people recycle plastic and aluminium, maunfacturing pots, hangbags, suitcases and just about everything else.

Most of Dharavi’s citizens hail from villages like the one in ‘the Darkness’, where Balram, the memorable protagonist of The White Tiger, originates. They are stoical in face of the danger their activities in confined space presents; toxic lead paint fumes spew forth from a makeshift plant, adjacent to where children are playing. Yet it’s poverty without misery, and the levels of industry and enterprise on display are breathtaking.

Moving through a tight warren of shacks, we pass one of Krishna’s guides, accompanying an elderly American couple. The man, strangely, wishes us ‘Merry Christmas’; they have the distressed bearing of having gotten in too far without knowing how to get off the ride. Some years ago, Danny Boyle remarked that the medium of cinema glamourises everything; it just does by its nature. The Dharavi of Slumdog doesn’t reek like this on celluloid, nor do we experience it close-up and in strength-sapping heat.

We’re joined by three tourists from Manchester, England. James is employed  by Barclays Bank, but studied Zoology at university and would love to be able to work in his chosen field. As we pass the mangy dogs, cats, goats, and the odd harrassed chicken, I’m sure he’s relecting that animal welfare is low down the list of priorities here. His two companions are both -confusingly- called Jo. Jo Page is an English teacher who came on this tour to see how ‘real people live,’ and is passionate in her view that we have to know about places like Dharavi. She’s undertaken a similar excursion in Soweto and is surprised at the comparative amount of industry and business here. Lamenting the lack of a teacher exchange progamme, she’d love to tutor English at a school in Dharavi for a year. Jo Sibbons works at the Foreign Office, and the trio are visiting a friend living in Mumbai, also, inevitably, called Jo.

James and the two Jo’s are the kind of tourists you feel instantly comfortable with in this scenario; they certainly aren’t staggering around gawping vicariously at proceedings. Obviously informed and genuinely interested, they ask Krishna intelligent questions about Dharavi’s landlord’s and Government policy.

I ask James whether he thinks its a good idea for white, Westerners to come here, and he displays a healthy ambivalence. “It’s definitely a double-edged sword. I’m very uncomfortable about being here, but I know that the money is going to the people who need it, which wouldn’t be the case if I was visiting something else in the city.”

Reality Tours are busier since the success of Slumdog, Jo Sibbons specifically referencing the film in drawing her attention to Dharavi. But again, no movie can evoke the smells of poverty; the stench of the sewage canal running through the slum is unbearable, but children will still immerse themselves in it’s deadly black gunge to salvage plastic bottles. However, on a patch of premium open space, some enthusiastic local kids enjoy the healthier pursuit of cricket. Jo Page joins in, showing some nice batting and fielding skills. I’m heartened to see someone from England holding their own in a real cricketing nation, as another Reality guide brings along Christie Wheaton, from Atlanta, Georgia, a doctorate economics student specialising in outsourcing. “It’s important for people in the west to physically see where clothes, suitcases and purses are made and how the plastic bottles they throw away are recycled. With outsourcing, we’ve become mentally divorced from production. We need to see the work that other people are doing on our behalf, and for such small reward.”

While people should know about places like Dharavi, the concern is that it’s not easy for them to effectively advocate for social change to improve conditions in such neighbourhoods. The rights and wrongs of this sort of tourism ultimately depends on the motives of its participants, as it would be impossible for tour operators to provide these services without enjoying a positive relationship with the host community.

Krishna’s patently not an outsider in Dharavi; many of the locals are obviously close friends. He’s delighted to have our photographer present so he can get pictures of a family friend’s new baby. His dream is to eventually build a school for the children of the area. He views Dharavi’s rural incomers as enterprising workers, unworthy of condescension. They appreciate the inherent risks; the airborne and waterborne diseases in the swarming conditions, which have such a terrible impact on mortality rates. Nevertheless, they have choosen this life as it offers the best chance of advancement for themselves and their children.

As is so often the case in such scenarios, it seems as if the authorities have other ideas. The Maharashtra Government are promoting a slum-to-skyscraper programme, in the knowledge that people in this economy generally live above where they work and putting them into mulit-story apartments means they cannot earn a living. This scheme originally required the agreement of 70% of people in the proposed area of development, but this is no longer the case. Its instructive that Dharavi is being singled out, while many mosquito-ridden slums on the swampy peripheries of Mumbai are in greater need. It seems transparently obvious that the real motive is to drive people out of this central location of prime real estate.

Dharavi wont go down without a fight; election fever has gripped India, and the slums remain big voting blocks. Unlike the Western experience, it’s traditionally the poorest who value the vote most, while the wealthy tend to be blasé about it. But this is changing, with major campaigns, often led by youthful Bollywood stars, encouraging affluent voters to turn out. A slum it may be, but paradoxically Dhavari, with it’s self-help and recycling ethos, is also one of the most inspiring models of economic development in the world, with a diverse coalition of political friends as well as enemies.

Near the end of our tour, we see the American lady, alone on a main road. Unable to go further in the midday heat, she waits for the guide and her husband. Some children chat to her, friendly and sociable, like everyone else in Dharavi. No sense of threat is afforded by the obviously affluent’s intrusion in local people’s homes and workplaces, and in a manner which would be unthinkable in most societies. Instead, people are unfailingly welcoming. But it has been an exhausting day and I’m relieved, if somewhat guilty, to retire to the luxury of the Four Seasons to spend a relaxed evening watching the burning amber ball of a sun setting across the Arabian Sea.

The next morning I’m up early and out to the nearby Vatsalya Foundation, a project for orphaned boys. The Four Seasons wisely chooses to embrace rather than deny the diversity of its colourful neighbourhood, and as the biggest employer in Worli, the hotel helps support this project, as well as providing apprenticeships for local youngsters. I’m accompanied by Hannah from Surrey, who is employed by the Four Seasons as an advanced interpreter, but is seconded here certain days of the week, to teach supplementary English to some of the fifty-odd residents, aged between six and seventeen.

Vatsalya is an uplifting experience, belying the sad origins of the boys, many of whom are runaways, or have been abandoned by their families. They display some impressive artwork, then a four-man dance outfit, including one boy acclaimed for his roles in two Bollywood movies, give a highly polished performance.

In the afternoon, I undertake a more conventional tour of Mumbai, marvelling at some of the most outstanding examples of British Victorian architecture anywhere in the world; the breathtaking domes of the former Prince of Wales Museum, (now called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), the Gateway to India, and the overwhelmingly stunning CST railway station, modelled on St Pancras in London, but a daring assemblage of design styles. The clock tower at the University is the twin of London’s Big Ben, while the Bombay art deco buildings that line the Marine Drive promenade of the atmospheric Girgaum Chowpatty (an urban beach to rival Sydney’s Bondi or Rio’s Copacabana) evokes Brighton in its heyday.

After a trip to Ghandi’s former home at Mani Bhvan, now an engaging and informative museum, and the tranquil Bangagra Tank, I take a moment for quiet contemplation above the city at the Hanging Gardens, reflecting that Mumbai remains an amazing visual treat for the more traditional tourist.

Yesterday’s trip has convinced me that the urge to undertake ‘slum tourism’ springs from essentially decent rather than voyeuristic instincts. People have always wanted the best for themselves, their families and their locale. Now, through increased awareness of global issues, many also have aspirations to do better for the world community. Those ambitions, with the rise of the internet, are stronger than ever. Sadly, the mechanisms to enable them, whether in a ‘democracy’ of self-serving political oligarchies and business elites, or some form of dictatorship, seem woefully inadequate.

In place of a genuine global movement for radical social change, our attention now often falls on artists. Be they modest filmmakers, trying to show us something different while entertaining us (and succeeding well beyond their own expectations), or lecturing, vainglorious, Christian pop stars, desperate for photo-opps with world leaders and pursuing an essentially status quo agenda, their shoulders are way too narrow for the burden of expectation we’ve either placed upon them, or they’ve attempted to appropriate for themselves.

Slumdog Millionaire has, along with unprecedented levels of praise, as is to be expected with anything so succesful, excited some harsh criticism. The British establishment’s favourite Anglo-Indian, Mumbai-born but Rugby and Cambridge educated Sir Salman Rushdie, sounds more anti-imperialist than he’s done in many years when critiquing the film. His tastes might run more towards The White Tiger, which has been signed up for adaptation by a major Hollywood studio, inevitably on the back of Slumdog’s unexpected success. Forget all-conquering love providing a passage to the good life, the ticket out off the slums in Adiga’s novel is earned through embracing violence, ruthlessness and political corruption. It will be fascinating to see how Hollywood treats this darker version of the Indian dream. But instead of criticising films or books for their portrayal of life in India’s slums, our energies would be better spent protesting at the very existence of these conditions. Whether critics gush or sneer, their deliberations won’t make any difference to Mumbai’s slum children.

Following a trip to Kolkata several years ago, I was impressed by the indominable spirit and good cheer of the people, but I found it hard to see any path through the maze of economic, social, infrastructure and ecological problems the city faced. Mumbai is a very different beast. With it’s thriving Stock Exchange and Bollywood glamour, its more compatable to dynamic forces and accomodating to the inequities associated with embracing full-on capitalist development.

Recession angst, which dominates Western public discourse, is much less prevalent here, even during an election period. If unbridled capitalism is dead in the water in the West, it’s alive and kicking in Mumbai. Whether in the slums of Dhavari or the more affluent south of the city, there’s absolutely no aura of civic victimhood. Quite the contrary; the brash, swaggering confidence of Mumbai suggests a place coming of age, and knowing full well that its destiny is right at the centre of things. Through the considerable literal and metaphorical stink of poor infrastructure, damaged ecology and political corruption, so wonderfully evoked in The White Tiger, you can occassionally smell something far more intoxicating: the future. Perhaps, deep down, white Westerners trickle in to Mumbai’s slums because we want to understand how those beautiful brown people who have nothing, will replace us at the top of the global pile.