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India: Diving into Delhi

A slum tour in Delhi reveals it's not about ogling poverty and inequality but about acknowledging the reality so both travellers and locals can learn from each other

India: Diving into Delhi
Image: Reality Tours, Delhi

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The entrance to Sanjay Colony slum glitters like a catwalk. Sequins are strewn all over the street and to either side rise great mounds of discarded clothes.

“Welcome to mini Delhi,” beams my 21-year-old guide, Shehnaz Khan, her smart blue shirt sticking to her in the midday heat. Sanjay Colony covers 25 acres, is home to around 50,000 people, and sits in the heart of southern Delhi’s industrial area, where the recycling of plastic, packaging, and clothes is hand sorted (mainly by women) 14 hours a day for a wage of 200 rupees (roughly £2).

“My father used to work in Sanjay as a tailor when he first came to Delhi 20 years ago. We’ve come full circle as now I lead tours here,” says Shehnaz, proudly.

Reality Tours and Travel started running tours in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum — Asia’s largest — in 2006. Its model of no-photo tours, employing local guides from under-privileged areas, and returning 80% of the post-tax profits back to the community via its sister NGO, Reality Gives, proved so beneficial to locals it transplanted the scheme to Delhi four years ago.

“We talked to the community and asked them what they wanted. They said they needed to learn English (the government only provides education in Hindi) and computer studies, so we offer just that,” says Shehnaz.

We weave down narrow alleys — wide enough for just one motorbike — dodging deep drains filled with grey sludge and crisp packets, and past street sellers with their bicycle baskets bulging with mangoes, bananas and lychees. The street itself is spotless; swept clean and lined with fortresses of blue jerry cans (for water). Occasionally, I swat away a fly lured by the wafts of frying onions and washing powder.

Shehnaz points out the strings of chillies and lemons hanging above doorways “to stop black magic”, and hole-in-the-wall shops “like my father used to work in”, where men sitting at whirring Singer sewing machines stop momentarily to wave. Kids seated on stoops with schoolbooks across their laps spring to their feet on seeing me. “Hello! How are youuuu?” they chime, placing their small hands in mine as we walk a block or two.

We arrive at the home of Khazani Devi. A sleeping dog guards the steep narrow stairs to the first floor, where we find Khazani cooking chapattis over a two-ring gas cooker. She’s the mother of Vijay Kumar, a Reality Tours guide who was born and grew up in Sanjay. He lives in the four-room block with his four brothers, their wives, children and his parents. Khazani puts on lunch for guests to earn extra income.

Dressed in a green kurti, with a bulge on her bosom where she’s stuffed her purse, she urges me to sit on the bed. Her face dimples when she points to Vijay’s ‘Guide of the Month 2017’ plaque hanging on the wall. We chat while I scoop up handfuls of fried okra, dal and rice; an almighty water cooler fan blowing air in our faces.

I ask Khazani how working with Reality Tours has changed her life. She points to the ceiling and Shehnaz translates. “It’s allowed us to build a proper house with safe, steel beams and we could afford to go to a private hospital when Vijay’s sister-in-law had complications with her pregnancy — that meant a lot.”

Quite rightly, there’s much debate about the pros and cons of slum tourism. But it’s not about ogling the poverty and inequality. It’s about acknowledging the reality of their lives and establishing a dialogue so both traveller and local can learn from each other. This can open up opportunities — including schooling and computer donations — that might not otherwise come about.

Later, I meet Vijay at the Reality Tours office in the heart of the slum. “We can improve ourselves and, side by side, help our community — it feels amazing,” he says. The sparkle in his eye is far brighter than the sequins I’d seen scattered on the floor that morning.