Slum Tourism in Delhi: An Inside View

Hans Schenk

Guided tours into slums in the Global South have become popular, notably among tourists from the Global North. The Oscar winning-movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008), set in Mumbai’s largest slum Dharavi, and the world-wide exposure of favela-tours in Rio de Janeiro during global sports events (in 2014 and 2016), have certainly contributed to what is called ‘slumming’ in a wide range of major cities, from Cape Town to Manilla, from Mexico City to Jakarta. Slum tourism, in whatever form, is much older and can be traced back to 19th-century London and elsewhere.[i] Unsurprisingly, quite some studies have been published in which the phenomenon has been explored, analysed, and evaluated. Tore Holst’s study on tours for groups of tourists in a Delhi neighbourhood forms a recent and interesting example. At the suggestion of the Delhi-based NGO Salaam Baalak Trust (SBT) Holst worked as a volunteer for the organisation for more than four months in 2013 and a few weeks in 2014, combining voluntary labour with fieldwork for his research on slum tourism. SBT, a respected voluntary organisation, supported by the cultural and social elites in Delhi provides food, shelter, and education to street children since 1988. Since 2010 they have been organising city walks ­– two-hours walking tours followed by a meeting with former street children in an SBT shelter home in Pahar Ganj, a crowded neighbourhood in Delhi. Holst was mainly assigned to teach English and ‘presentation skills’ to city walks guides.

This context of, say, institutionalised participant observation made it possible for Holst to study the phenomenon of slum tourism in considerable depth.[ii] That means that he not only analysed the city walks, but involved all actors as well: tourists, guides, former street children, NGO-staff, and volunteers, including his own role. These analyses structure the book, in terms of chapters devoted to each type of actor.

Slum tourism: Theory and practice

The point of departure of Holst’s understanding of the phenomenon of ‘slum tourism’ is that he moves away from the notion that it is just an emotional encounter between wealth and poverty. He concludes that: ‘slum tourism might be understood not only as a tourist performance but also as an aid performance governed by post-humanitarian logic’ (p. 162).[iii] This logic is characterised by a conscious mix of charity and business in which private gain and altruism are not exclusive. Based on these assumptions Holst has developed an explanatory framework of the activities of the actors involved in the city walks. In this framework it is in the first place important that all actors are primarily engaged in the exchange of different kinds of capital. Hence, the tourists walking through the streets and alleys of Pahar Ganj are both donors (they pay a fee) and consumers (they receive information), while the city walk guides both work and receive aid, or rather a salary: quid pro quo. The walks lead to sets of rational relations, based on these exchanges between the tourists on the one hand and the guides, former street children, SBT staff, and even the volunteers on the other hand. However, Holst leaves some space for emotions, some affectional relations; poverty is, after all, not invisible in Pahar Ganj and elsewhere in India, where the tourists from the Global North have been. But emotions are channelled in the right direction during the encounters between participants in the city walks and subsequent meetings with the former street children, and the children and guides of SBT.

Parts of the programme contents have been reconstructed during the contacts between SBT and the participants of the city walk programme. Pahar Ganj is after all not a slum and lacks e.g. the perpetually existential threats by the municipal bulldozer. During the walks, the guides try to direct the attention of the tourists to the less extreme visual dimensions of poverty. To tourists, guides and children of SBT are not presented as examples of India’s poor, but rather as a special group of people. The stories of the children who are brought in contact with the tour participants are not stories of children running from poverty (as is structural in the Indian context), but of victims to accidental misfortunes: drunken fathers, abuse, etc. Hence, these unfortunate children can be meaningfully helped by SBT, and certainly through the small donations of the foreign tourists, while ‘the larger group of street children outside the organisation [remain] beyond the reach of the CW-visitors [city walk visitors]’ (p. 163). Similarly, the tour guides – all former street children themselves, most of them boys aged 15 or older, but there were also two female guides – tell the tourists their personal stories at the end of the city walks: stories of an erstwhile street child, being found, admitted and educated by SBT, taking the offered chances, and now on the brink of success in a world beyond a slum. Their stories are similar, ‘shaped in relation to a master narrative’ (p. 6), as Holst reports at length: ‘trainees borrow themes, details, plotlines and endings from the older guides’ (p. 12), and there is always a happy end, or rather, the prospect or at least the hope of a happy future through higher education and, typically, a job in the tourism industry.[iv] Such constructed realities, Holst argues, help to direct the aroused emotions among the participants of the city walks to these children and guides of SBT in particular. ‘[T]hey are told that their limited donations and engagement are appreciated and make enough of a difference’ (p. 139). Holst concludes that in this way the tourists might be liberated from the agony of their failure to reach and try to help the much larger group of street- and other destitute children in Delhi, or for that matter in India.

Concluding remarks

Is Holst’s book a cynical assessment of his experiences with the SBT organisation? In my view it is not, even though the reader would often be tempted to think so. The NGO depends largely on the contributions of the participants in the city walks and their subsequent meetings with former street children. And indeed, SBT has taken many street children in in its shelter homes. The book is therefore primarily an account how an Indian NGO – even a well-established one in Delhi – must find ways and means to persuade the tourists from the Global North to get in direct, and somewhat close contact, with a few less fortunate – to use an understatement – youngsters. To the contrary, Holst’s book is fascinating, though his analyses are not always easily accessible. To me the book reads like a fair, honest – sometimes extremely honest – and profound account of his period as a volunteer-cum-researcher at SBT and of the subsequent well-substantiated descriptions and analyses of the translation of his experiences in Pahar Ganj into a dissertation. And though Holst concludes that there is a reluctance among the Indian middle- and upper classes to acknowledge the social and spatial exclusion in their society, he remarks in post-humanitarian wordings that slum tourism is a potentially large economic force, that supports the practices of many voluntary organisations. Beyond this logic, in the end the tourists finance SBT’s shelters for former street children as an expression of perhaps an ex-post-humanitarian logic?

Finally, a note on methodology. As I mentioned above, Holst participated in some major activities of SBT: teaching English to city walks guides, improving the personal stories of the guides, and teaching music to a group of young former street children, apart from being in the premises of SBT, ‘hanging out’ (p. 142), talking, and listening. He took daily notes, etc., and informed the SBT staff and others that he prepared a PhD dissertation on the city walks of SBT. Reflecting on this process, Holst writes towards the end of his study that: ‘I thus entered into an economy where former street children sold performances of liveability and grieveability[v]’ (p. 158) and that he became complicit in sustaining this economy. It is, however, difficult to combine Holst’s conclusion that he has identified himself with the interests of the guides, with his critical discussion of the personal stories he has helped to improve (pp. 121-140). Where does participation stop and evaluation start? How far does the overlap go?

[i] For a recent introduction to its origin, see Alan Mayne, Slums: The History of a Global Injustice, London: Reaktion Books, 2017.
[ii] Formally speaking Pahar Ganj is not a slum. Initially SBT worked in a nearby slum-area that was demolished in 2010. Hence, the organisation decided to move to the crowded and poor Pahar Ganj area.
[iii] Holst has taken the concept of post-humanitarian logic from Lilie Chouliaraki, The Ironic Spectator: Solidarity in the Age of Post-Humanitarianism, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013. See Holst p. 104.
[iv] Very often in vain, Holst observes that upward social mobility is indeed a far cry in India.
[v] Term unclear to reviewer.