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The real heart of Mumbai

Name

Reality Tours and Travel

Idea

To show tourists to India the real side of Dharavi slums in Mumbai.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to see when I toured Dharavi but it wasn’t children dancing Gangham style. This ended up being one of the least surprising parts of my visit to the famous heart shaped slum in India which houses an estimated 1 million residents and turns over approximately US$ 2.5 Million each year through its commercial activities.

I was visiting Dharavi as part of a tour run by Reality Tours and Travel who aim to dispel the negative views that many people hold about life in the slums and the residents themselves. The tour weaves through the commercial and residential precincts of the slum past cricket matches, weddings, and innumerable commerce projects from soap making to large-scale plastic recycling. Many residents are proud of their famous postcode and tourists are equally excited to share the buzz.

After my visit the team at Reality Tours and Travel answered my questions about the concept itself and how they have made it work.

Where did the idea come from to take tours of Dharavi, and how did you get things started?

Before visiting India, Chris Way the co-founder of Reality Tours had taken a tour through the famous favelas in Rio de Janero, Brazil. He felt very uncomfortable as the tourists were lead through the slum in an air conditioned bus without any contact with the residents and there seemed to be no benefit to the community.

Chris came to Mumbai on a volunteer teaching placement in 2002 and met Krishna Pujari (co-founder). The pair found they shared the idea of running similar tours in Dharavi but with a crucial difference – the focus would be to benefit for the community affected by the tours. From the very start in 2006 Reality Tours and Travel pledged to give 80% of its profits back to the community by supporting social activities.

From here, how did you get things started. Did you talk much with the community in Dharavi?

We didn’t speak to residents in great length before we set up the tours as talk is cheap in this city and we were met with skeptical laughs. When we started the tours we communicated what we were trying to do with the residents; dispel the negative image that many have about the slums and put money back into the community.

Communication between the company and the residents has continued, we speak if there are any problems and to decide what activities Reality Gives will run. On the whole we have very good relations with the people in the area. We run small groups of 6 people maximum, have a no cameras policy and invest profits into the community via Reality Gives.

What do you want visitors to get out of the tour?

Reality Tours aim is to show a side of Mumbai you won’t find in your travel guide book - the 'real Mumbai'. This means on all our tours we talk about social issues in the whole city. For example we also visit the red light district and talk about people living on the streets. So the additional tours were just the next step in expansion of our high quality tour services but also in our vision to raise social awareness.

With Dharavi, our aim is to dispel the negative attitudes many people have towards slums and its residents by showing that we have huge economic power and community spirit. We hope people will not only change their perception of slums but also see the social issues and opportunities within Dharavi. The tour experience often has a great impact on our customers.

On my tour I met young children who were singing me popular YouTube hits. What effect do you think the internet is having on residents of Dharavi?

Internet is easy accessible and many people have smart phones, of course slum dwellers want to be part of the technical revolution. The only difference here is that the experience is shared and the internet is used within the community – often ten boys sit together and watch a video on one phone. It doesn’t become as dissocialising as in other parts of the society. The internet has the potential to keep the dreams and visions of the youth high and they also get more opportunities to fulfil these.

What is next for Reality Tours and Travel?

We also run various tours in Mumbai and beyond. This includes a Mumbai by Night, Market, Public Transport, Bicycle and a Village Tour (1 or 2 Days). Additionally we also offer a whole day Sightseeing Tour, either including the Dharavi Slum Tour or without.

Currently we are still in the process of expansion and hopefully by end of the year we will add many more tour services. Stay tuned!

Interviewed by
Alice Bradshaw

Photography by
Cory Goldberg, Tom Parker Andreas, Grosse-Halbuer

Reality Tours and Travel