New Delhi: Shekhar Saini points to a small juice shack lined with bananas, apples and oranges. He then directs the eyes of his Australian tourists to the flattened cardboard boxes laying on top of the small stand on a platform in the New Delhi railway station. “That’s where some of the street kids sleep at night,” he says loudly over the drone of a train rumbling into the station. “You have to be clever when you live on the street.”
Saini would know. He ran away from Bihar when he was 12, and lived at the station for several years. He ran away because his smoking and gambling had brought shame to his middle-class family. Now 21, Saini works as a tour guide for Salaam Baalak Trust, a non-profit that provides support to street and working children.
The Rs200 two-hour tour goes through Paharganj and the New Delhi railway station, where Saini says more than 200 children, some as young as five, live. While sharing his story, Saini points out how street children eat, sleep and face issues like prostitution, gang-life and drugs.
In the past few years, “reality tours” such as Salaam Balaak Trust’s have been popping up in major cities across India.
A Mumbai company runs a tour where sightseers are taken to Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum. Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, arranges reality tours in over 30 countries, including India.
These tours have become popular among travellers, evidenced by listings in popular sightseeing books such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. But while these trips are designed to create awareness, some critics say they’re merely voyeuristic, intended for weal-thy tourists to gawk at India’s poverty and maybe even come away with a pretty picture.
“I don’t care if 150% of the money is going to the NGO or to the welfare of those poor people. The first and foremost issue is dignity,” said Javed Abidi, a social activist and honorary director the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People in New Delhi.
“When you’re barging into people’s homes or barging your camera into the faces of little kids, who don’t know what’s going on, you’re just showcasing poverty.”
Not everyone agrees.
Dusk Richardson, a student of anthropology in Melbourne, Australia, came to India to learn about the poor. She found out about the Salaam Baalak Trust tour from a listing in Lonely Planet.
Ringside view: Shekhar Saini (centre) of Salaam Baalak Trust takes Australian tourists Dusk Richardson (right), Sue Atkins (with a white hat) and Debby McDonald (in red shirt) on a tour of Paharganj in Delhi. (Harikrishna Katragadda /Mint)
“So far the tour has been great and extremely interesting,” said Richardson, as she watched a group of young street children playing a board game. “I think when an indigenous person is taking you around, it’s not exploitative.”
Krishna Poojari, owner of Reality Tours and Travel, has been organizing tours to Dharavi since January 2006.
During the tour, travellers are taken through residential areas, in addition to visits to small-scale industries—recycling, pottery, soap making, leather tanning and pappadom making—that thrive in the slum.
During a tour in December, tourists even watched the slaughter of goats for Eid. Tours run two-and-a-half hours for Rs300 and four-and-a-half hours cost Rs600. During the longer tour, tourists are driven through Mumbai’s red-light district.
Poojari said the objective of the tour is to break stereotypes. “People are really surprised to see there’s no begging and that there’s a sense of community, people working hard and people being happy,” he said. “We show a positive side of the slums”.
He added that there is a no-camera policy to protect the privacy of residents. However, on a recent tour, tourists were allowed to take pictures if they asked permission first and kept snapping to a minimum.
Reality Tours has also started two-day rural tours, where visitors can see what life in an Indian village is like. They spend the night with a family in nearby Indapur in southern Maharashtra, and participate in works such as milking cows and ploughing fields, says the company’s website. The price: Rs12,000 for a group of five.
Still, some are skeptical. “Obviously, the intention here is to get some easy money,” said Abidi. “Yes you need money to do social work, but there are better ways to get that money. If the work is good, the credibility intact, there are agencies available. But to get money in this fashion—slum tourism—is completely unethical.”
But Saini says nobody knows the culture of streets better than those who grew up on them. The tour winds up at one of Salaam Baalak’s contact points, where 53 former street kids under the age of 14 live. During the summers, up to 80 kids will live there. About half of them have shaved heads to prevent lice. They sing and smile, and most of them are eager to have their pictures taken by the visitors.
It has been an emotional visit for many of the tourists.
One woman from Brisbane, Australia cries for the second time. Saini reminds the tourists the cost is Rs200. Tips are appreciated.