Via Albert Krishna Ali at The Other India, a Guardian article about a new tourism phenomenon in India: slum tours. It's apparently a common enough practice in places like Soweto and Rio, but new to India. For 200 Rupees, tourists get a guided tour of the areas around Delhi's railway station, where a few thousand homeless children live:
The tour guide instructs visitors not to take pictures (although he makes an exception for the newspaper photographer). 'Sometimes the children don't like having cameras pointed at them, but mostly they are glad that people are interested in them,' Javed claims, adding that the friendly smiles of the tourists are more welcome than the railway policemen's wooden sticks and the revulsion of the train travellers. He hopes the trip will get a listing in the Lonely Planet guides. Nevertheless there is something a little uncomfortable about the experience -- cheerful visitors in bright holiday T-shirts gazing at profound misery. (link)
Really, what could possibly be uncomfortable about well-fed tourists paying to gawk at desperately poor children?
The author of the Guardian article is definitely skeptical about the whole thing too:
By the end of the walk, the group is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the smells of hot tar, urine and train oil. Have they found it interesting, Javed asks? One person admits to feeling a little disappointed that they weren't able to see more children in action -- picking up bottles, moving around in gangs. 'It's not like we want to peer at them in the zoo, like animals, but the point of the tour is to experience their lives,' she says. Javed says he will take the suggestion on board for future tours. . . .
Babloo, who thinks he is 10, has been living here for maybe three years. His hands are splashed white from the correction fluid that he's breathing in through his clenched left fist, and he pulls a dirty bag filled with bottles with his other hand. His life is unrelentingly bleak and he recognises this.'I don't know why people come and look at us,' he says. (link)
The tours are run by Salaam Baalak Trust, which is a small charity organization focused on caring for homeless children in Delhi. They administer first aid as well as more serious health care help for children who have AIDS or serious drug addiction problems. They also give them basic education and vocational training, and help their families where possible.
In short, SBT is in general a good organization narrowly focused on helping a group of children living in desperate straits. This program makes money for them, but clearly the money and publicity come at the potential cost of the children's dignity.
According to Give World, Salaam Baalak Trust was founded by Mira Nair in 1988 to rehabilitate the slum children she used as actors in Salaam Bombay (hence the name, "Salaam Baalak"). I haven't quite been able to figure out how the organization got from Bombay to Delhi, but as far as I can tell they are now based entirely in Delhi.
The story of the group's founding provides a second layer of irony: this is an organization that was founded using funds generated by western voyeurism of Indian poverty (Nair's film), which is now pioneering the effort to reproduce that voyeurism in a brand new format.
I wouldn't go on the tour in its present form, but perhaps I would try and volunteer to help out with this organization in some way instead. And if tourists want to do more than just take pictures of the Taj Mahal or dance on the beach at Goa, I don't see why that should be frowned upon (especially if the money is put to good use). Is there a way to do it that doesn't involve mere voyeurism?