“You wanted to see the real India, this is real India!”, the boy (Jamal) angrily exclaims in Slumdog Millionaire after the foreigner couple have had their share of pity on visiting the generic slums of the country, when they return to see their car being robbed off all their belongings, including the wheels and motor parts as well. Reflect. Is this truly the “real India”? Or more so, is this the “real India” that we wish to show ourselves as?
A very commonly emerging sector of our economy is “slum-tourism” where the rhetoric about the real India is apparently showcased to foreigner visitors, where they are made to tour through slum dwellings and witness the impoverished lifestyles of our people, in order to give them a feel of what India is like. This sector of tourism is highly debatable, as the contentious issue revolves around its morality and also whether it solves the purpose of tourism or accrues any sort of benefit for the nation or not.
The entire purpose of promoting tourism is to glorify the image of the nation in front of visitors from the other country. The reason why all monuments and best locations are given the tag of “tourist spots” is because they are the most desirable places that we as a nation would like our visitors to see and experience. Abstract advertisement concepts of “Incredible India” or “Atithi Devo Bhava” in light of tourism, is a way of spreading the propaganda which aims at ensuring that our nation’s image is held in high regard in the eyes of other countries. We want those tourists to take away the fond memories of picturesque locations, the enjoyment in the variety of food items and handicrafts, the joy of interacting with nice people, the experience of the rich culture and heritage, and the satisfaction of having seen the best of another country.
However, slum-tourism seems to be a misfit within the idea of tourism. It shows a deplorable condition of our country, one which we ourselves despise. People from other countries are made to see the under-privileged lifestyles of impoverished citizens, and go away with a sense of pity for our nation. The image of our nation is tarnished, where the people are seen as backward and grounded. The government is seen in low light as irresponsible and underperforming in their inability to take care of citizens. Also, this image of the nation is an unfair image for those who actually belong to a different class and lifestyle, where they are represented by the poor only. No sense of power can be attached to a country or any legitimacy to the government when a sense of pity is associated to the nation’s well being in the global community. Such glum and negative impression of the country in the common international arena is not a beneficial tag to be proud of.
One may argue that the exposure of such problems by appealing to the pity of outsiders may create a discourse leading to some change. However, such discourse is only a further dent in the perception of poverty and the image of the nation. In the name of tourism, poverty is glorified. The tourists are made to appreciate the hardships that poor people face. They are made to see that despite having so little, people manage to be happy. The impoverished condition of the people is seen as no hindrance, as their strong will power and hard working abilities are glorified to show that families are supported with such little material benefit. This is romanticizing of poverty. Such romanticizing of poverty trivializes the existence of impoverished people, as the discourse spreads to show that poverty is nothing wrong.
Alongside, for tourists from the western part of the globe, slum-tourism feeds into the oriental ego. The “goras” are made to believe that they are indeed forward in terms of living standards. Their supremacy and the rhetoric of western hegemony is being furthered. The “white-guilt” is further enhanced where the tourists are made to feel pitiful about the sad state of this country, vis-à-vis their own.
Instead of addressing the problem of poverty, slum-tourism exploits the existence of the problem. While the poor people need help, the tourism sector furthers self-interest by exploiting the presence of poor people itself. The social hierarchy which is structured based on monetary divide, is being misused.
While Narendra Modi is constantly making an effort, travelling around the world, to glorify the nation’s image, here we are giving away a deplorable view of what we truly aren’t. In the era where the western supremacy is being let go, here we are feeding into the white-guilt. Where poverty is a world-wide issue, we are romanticizing poverty and the hardships of poor people. The question is simple: why do we want our guests to visit Dharavi over Taj Mahal? Do we prefer the stench and dirt over the breezy Mussorie Hills? Is a slum the “real India”?