Slum tourism – when does curiosity cross the line into intrusion?

By Dakshata Sharma
Bachelor of Liberal Arts & Science (majoring in Political Economy)

Having been in Mumbai for a few days now, there is no question that the glitz and glamour that we’ve heard about through the Bollywood industry and other forms of pop culture is prevalent in certain parts of this city. What isn’t so beautiful, glitzy or glamourous, is the inequality that is visible across this city.

Even on a bus, while travelling to a field trip, looking out of the window on the right, I see a business hub and high-rise buildings with men and women living their fast-paced life in the corporate and capital centric world. Glancing over to the left, the scenes of slums, self-built projects, temporary housing, mountains of waste and extreme poverty paint the horizon.

I think this stark contrast between the rich and the poor in Mumbai is an economically fascinating and unique place and for most visitors, they’ve never experienced this inequality before. There are diverse economic, social and political conditions within kilometres of each other. The social and geographical boundaries characterised by class, caste, gender and religion draw many lines and dissect this city.

Bearing witness to the spaces where inequality manifests as disadvantage is fascinating. But how ethical is it for tourists to go to slums?

Slum tourism is a commercial enterprise in Mumbai. A simple internet search or visit to a local tourism office will recommend slum tours as an attraction, but the question lies, should spaces where people live and work be commodified into a tourist attraction, where strangers come to (essentially) gawk at the residents of impoverished communities?

It seems wrong of tour companies to capitalise of someone’s poverty, and through constant advertising and promotion of slum visits and tours – poverty tourism has become normalised in Mumbai.

This is not to suggest that tourists visit slums with the malicious intent to disrespect residents; but if we try for a moment to think about poverty tourism from the point of view of the slum occupants, there are many questions we might raise about how the presence of tourists is experienced by slum residents.

Groups of people, mostly foreigners, with cameras, clean clothes, different languages, looking fascinated and pitiful at the same time may come across as being insensitive and intruding within their space. Although not trying to impose, and as I mentioned earlier, tourists generally visit these areas due to a sense of curiosity. But in visiting slums commercially, with a tour group, people do things like take photos without consent and post them on social media for public consumption. This may be experienced by slum residents as unwanted imposition.

On the other hand, it could be argued that poverty tourism contributes to the economic activity within the spaces of impoverished communities, and allows tourists a critical perspective to see a socially organised space which may sensitise them to the issue and help them to better understand the disparity within the Indian economy.

Debates about the ethical or non-ethical nature of slum tourism are ongoing. I think for these kinds of discussions to resolve, there needs the focus has to be on the impact that these visits have on the residents and how these interactions affect their daily lives.

The fascination with foreigners

By Laura Marsh-Clutton
Bachelor of Arts (Political Economy and Asian Studies)

On our first day in Mumbai we were thrown into the thick of it by experiencing Mumbai’s biggest landmark, the Gateway of India, on Republic Day. It is safe to say the crowds were in their thousands. However, The Gateway to India was not the only interesting thing I got to experience that day. Whereas I took photos of landmarks and buildings, many locals took photos of me and my group. Before departing for India my parents joked about how many people will want to take photos with me due to my light skin and blonde hair. At the time I laughed, thinking they were over reacting, but they were right. It was certainly a strange experience. I felt a bit like a celebrity and was more than happy to take a selfie with all the people who asked – there was many! I really enjoyed talking to everyone and they seemed very happy to be sharing a conversation with me.


India’s population has not been built through immigration, like has been the case for Australia. In Australia, we are used to seeing people of many ethnicities and races on a daily basis, as is the melting pot of our country. However in India, racial and ethnic differences are typically signifiers of foreignness. Hence, for locals at the Gateway of India, a person of white skin and pale hair is easily understood as a foreigner, and this goes a way to explaining the level of interest in us. This is all more the case during holiday periods, when Indians will often travel domestically from small villages such as Panipat in Haryana, where foreigners are never seen, to big cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. Considering this was Republic Day, it makes sense as to why so many people asked for a selfie!

Throughout our brief walk around the Gateway of India I found that the more I said “yes” to photos the more I was asked. It seems that word spreads quickly and that curiosity runs deep within the Indian people as many were drawn to the small crowd that had started to form. A most interesting occurrence was a man who asked me for photos on three separate occasions as he followed me around the Gateway. The continual over-stepping of what in Australia would be regarded as personal space boundaries, however, showed me that Indian people are very hospitable and welcoming in an effort to be friendly. Furthermore, it seemed that not only were the Indian people fascinated by us but having a photo with/of us was also a source of pride that was undoubtedly shared with their friends. Overall, this experience highlighted how in multicultural Australia, with its history of immigration, issues of race, ethnicity and foreignness are cast differently from that in India, representing a hand’s on first day experience of cultural learning.

Something special about TISS

By Stella Tang
Bachelor of Arts, Major in International Relations and Political Economy

On Monday the 27th of January, the Field School officially starts. Prof. Madhushree Sekher welcomed us and gave us a presentation introducing TISS, a university established in the year of 1936 in Mumbai, India. This presentation and my other experiences on campus made me reflect on what is special about TISS.

TISS has a motto “Re-imagining futures”. I found it impressive, especially when Prof. Madhushree talked about the professional social work the institution is engaged in. TISS is a place that aims to really change the future in a positive way and to improve the social outcomes (e.g. gender equality) and development of India. Indeed, the Institute makes a difference by contributing to policymaking, human resource development, health, environmental sustainability and urban development.

My other impressions of the campus relate to the everyday presence of wild animals such as monkeys and the street animals roaming on campus. During our walk from the Guest House to Greenroom every morning, a street dog (named Roger by Laura) was always there to accompany us.

The dogs have tags on their ears. The animals that inhabit the campus are taken care of by the TISS community. We encountered dogs away from campus too. During our walking tour to Colaba there was a significant number of free-roaming dogs. There are distinct features of the urban environment in Mumbai, such as exposed garbage and slums that sustain the population of street animals.

Most of the dogs we commonly see on the streets of Mumbai belong to the breed known as the Parish Dog. They live on garbage created by the city’s residents, providing an abundant source of food. The populations of street animals are also sustained by the garbage. In Mumbai, there is at least 500 tons of garbage are left uncollected every day. In fact, interestingly, most of the dogs and cats we see in public belong to the street and slum dwellers who keep them as pets.