Oct 062012

Written by Sonaly Patel

Over the past few years, a new trend in slum tourism has emerged with tours popping up in areas as geographically and culturally diverse as Brazil, Kenya, and India.  The concept has continuously attracted a great deal of controversy.  Critics say the tours cross sensitive ethical boundaries and create a spectacle of the communities while doing little to better the conditions of slum residents.  On the other hand, supporters of the idea maintain that the tours lift a veil of ignorance and provide a window into everyday life in the slums.

By Andreas Grosse-Halbuer, courtesy of Reality Tours and Travels

A glimpse inside Dharavi’s recycling industry where workers are cleaning, shining, and repackaging cooking oil cans to be resold and reused. Photo by Andreas Grosse-Halbuer, courtesy of Reality Tours and Travels

Last week, I went on a tour of Dharavi with intentions more resonant with the latter perspective, to get a better grasp on the realities of life in one of Asia’s largest slums.  The aptly named company, Reality Tours and Travels,* served as my guide into the Mumbai community that is home to more than 1 million people.

Our first stop was the industrial area where the more toxic trades are located.  We had a thorough look at the recycling industry, which sources discarded plastics – ranging from old toys to broken laundry baskets to punctured water barrels – from ragpickers and freelance plastic collectors at nominal prices.  The plastics are then crushed using a machine designed and built in Dharavi by Dharavi workers, washed, and left to dry on the shanty rooftops.  Once dry, the pieces are melted down into pellets, dyed, and sold to large plastic goods manufacturers.

Our next few stops were in the business district where we saw bakers, claywork artisans, fabric dyers, leather tanners, and soap cutters in action.  Afterwards, we wound our way to the Reality Gives community center, a vacant one-room home, a trash heap, and through the impossibly narrow alleyways of the religiously-delineated residential areas, catching a few glimpses here and there of people going about their daily lives.  Throughout the tour, we learned about the varying community reactions to government schemes in housing and sanitation as well as the history of Dharavi’s development.

In all honesty, the tour taught me a lot.  It changed my previously ill-informed view of poor urban communities in India, but just as importantly, it gave me a new perspective on interactions between social enterprises and the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” they exist to help.

When I was an undergraduate at Smith, I organized a session called “Designs for the Developing World” for the annual Social Enterprise Symposium.  I was ecstatic to say the least.  And I was elated by the possibilities the products and services featured on this panel and elsewhere could create for millions of people in developing countries.

In my excitement, what I did not understand back then was that innovative products and services can change people’s lives, but are not necessarily a guarantee that change will happen.  True innovation can involve new products and services, but requires a broader definition; it can also mean taking an existing idea, product, or service and applying it to a new context to catalyze change through resources that already exist.

In addition to unexpected industry and business activity, I witnessed an immensity of resourcefulness, strong work ethic, and creative entrepreneurial spirit in Dharavi.  I realized that we, in the social enterprise world, do not need to create solution from scratch.  Sometimes all that’s needed to help a community is to build off of the ecosystem and resources that already exist by contributing a simple catalyzer – It may not necessarily be new, but just missing in the context at hand.
*Reality Tours leads various tours of Dharavi as well as the greater Mumbai area, but its model has a unique social value proposition.  Eighty percent of the profits generated through tours is channeled to its sister nonprofit organization, Reality Gives, in order to give back to Dharavi’s residents.  The nonprofit’s initiatives include educational classes, nutrition workshops, and recreational activities for children to name a few.


Sonaly Patel is a recent graduate of the R.H. Smith School of Business. Through her involvement with the Center for Social Value Creation, she worked as a strategy consultant for a livelihoods initiative for cacao producing communities in Ecuador’s rainforests and a communications consultant for Liberty’s Promise, a local nonprofit serving immigrant youth.  At Maryland, she was a founding member of Students Ending Slavery, a leader in the AshokaU campus initiative, and a proud resident of Language House Spanish Cluster.  During her undergraduate years, she also interned at the Grassroots Business Fund in DC and studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain. Upon graduation, Sonaly moved to India to live and work in Mumbai through the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise.  She will be in India until May 2013.

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