Our new CEO, Paul Whittle, discusses what prompted him to leave his comfy job at a major tour operator in London to join us in Dharavi.
“You’re doing WHAT?!”
This sentiment, be it a sense of enduring fascination from friends or a cry of anguish from a long suffering family, has pervaded most of my adult life. Six months after leaving a well paid and highly respectable job in London to go on a bicycle ride from the UK to Turkey this last summer, the exact same reaction was again ringing in my ears. This time two wheels had been exchanged for three as I found myself in a tuk tuk whizzing through the streets of Mumbai to my new home. The daily commute now being to the slightly less luxurious surroundings here in Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s and indeed Asia’s largest slum communities.
My new “office” is within the slum itself, on the upper tier of a two-story hutment accessed by an initially unnerving climb up some steep outside metal steps. Now achieved with increasing confidence but still not without the occasional stumble. Having negotiated the crowded charms of Mumbai’s local trains the walk in often consists of dodging small barefoot children playing in the alleys or local workers carrying everything from pottery to bullock hides atop their heads, in a ridiculous show of cranial equilibrium. An ever changing menagerie of chickens, lambs and goats pervade the scene regularly and poke their head in through the open sliding door.
Corrugated metal sheets comprise the walls and ceiling. Smoke and dust often filtering in through the gaps as onions are fried, cooking fires are lit or ground dust is raised. The external heat and humidity permeates inside, requiring fans permanently switched on to avoid a change of shirt colour during the day. Wedding processions and other day to day festivities often reduce audibility levels to those of your average dance club in the early hours. The battle to block them out and focus on the tasks at hand is often a real challenge.
So….why and how am I here?
Fifteen years ago I travelled to Australia after university. What initially I figured would be no more than a typical gap year, in reality started a love affair with travel to this day. A passion that has ultimately allowed me to make a living out of travel with various small group adventure tour operators. Starting as a tour leader I gradually moved up through various operations positions in well-respected brands within the sector, working in places as diverse as Guatemala, Thailand, Cuba, Kenya and Peru. I was one of THOSE people you hear about, living the dream, working a lot harder than many assume but still travelling the world and having amazing life experiences basically paid for. Feel free to call me a git. You’d be more than entitled to and I fully realise it’s true.
Yet over the last few years I increasingly found myself examining the social benefits of the tours and my own role in this regard. As a tour leader I always enjoyed the odd occasion where the tour would interact with a local community or support a project. I got indirectly involved in several small projects through the tour groups but there was no sustained commitment. As I rose up through management levels I tentatively started to question company practices and looked in more detail at how we as travellers and travel companies were on balance benefiting the communities visited, if at all. Whilst I still have great affection for my previous companies I felt an ever stronger desire that I wanted to work for an operator where a social business model was at the core of their practices, the real ethos of their existence as opposed to a slight bonus should we have a good financial year or as a sideshow. A company that could commit and provide sustainable support through direct investment.
There are sadly many companies out there that pay lip service to being a committed socially responsible company. It is now a marketing tool in itself and many are desperate to try and prove their worth in this regard, often with very questionable or spurious claims of best practice, never really audited. Other times it is simply a case of limited resources, be they time, personnel or financial, which curtail their ability to prioritise this aspect. If as a company your initial purpose was not to be a social business it is very difficult to integrate it further on down the line.
Hence how I find myself here in my new role working as CEO for Reality Tours & Travels, an Indian tour operator which runs day tours in Mumbai and Delhi ranging from cycling to market tours, sightseeing to street food. We also operate the occasional group tour around the likes of Kerala and Rajasthan. Nothing too unusual there right. The difference being our signature tour also involves taking the more socially curious traveller around Dharavi slum itself. Attempting through our local guides not only to inform about the well publicised challenges which exist in such a society, but also provide a more balanced viewpoint about the incredible community spirit and entrepreneurship which the slum’s residents show. 80% of the profits from all the tours run by the company are then used to fund directly operated projects within the community through our sister organisation Reality Gives. Projects which focus on the education and empowerment of children and youths in the community, creating opportunities for personal growth and development which may not otherwise exist. The projects were the goal from the start, the tours a means to securing initial and ongoing revenue to finance them. Hence after a few years of gradual growth in passenger numbers our two co-founders, Krishna from India and Chris from the UK, were able to start a community centre after consultation with the local residents as to their requirements.
I am a born cynic. I expect many reading this might be too. Before arriving I questioned myself if the company’s claims regarding their commitment, financial and moral, to the projects was completely genuine. Was this too ultimately a ploy to bring more people on tour. Or a well-intentioned venture which ultimately didn’t quite deliver on its promises. Now that I have full access to the company accounts I can certainly verify the claims made in terms of profits being funnelled into the local projects, accounts we also put on the website. The particular attraction for me is of the self-financing nature of the business, in that it is the tour revenues themselves which provide the vast majority of the income for the projects. Whilst donations are more than welcome and gratefully received they too predominantly come from previous clients or personal contacts. The two sides of the company are inherently linked but operate autonomously also. We do not wish for pity tourism where people come on an average quality tour simply because they know their money is going to the good causes. The tours should be professional and enjoyable in their own right.
Slum tour operations is a controversial subject of course and I have never been in a position before where I have had to in some ways justify my role and a company’s product. It is galling to think of the number of operators out there running environmentally and socially irresponsible tours, at great profit to shareholders, who would never be questioned in the same way. Yet a company dedicated to investing in community projects, working in partnership with the residents and raising our own funds seemingly has to do so. So our continued adherence to responsible practices is something else I was keen to ensure. To see that we ran the tours in the best way possible to directly benefit the community overall, without being intrusive or creating further issues. Happily the company has received industry recognition in this regard and make all efforts to ensure we maintain this mutual respect with the community.
We all know the usual accusations and nay-sayers. It is all too easy for the critical outsider to deride us as well-meaning but ultimately deluded NGO staff. Who come from predominantly middle class backgrounds in wealthy nations and think that a brief stay somewhere like India is going to make a difference without really knowing the true issues or any unintentional consequences of our being here. The critique will likely go on to say that in reality we’re on a bit of a power kick and satisfying a more selfish semblance of feeling good by helping. Secure in our knowledge we’ll return back home soon enough having enjoyed a bit of an adventure. I too wrestle with these thoughts from time to time and question myself in that regard. I know full well the ability to make light of things like career paths, income and job titles comes from the knowledge I have options available, had opportunities growing up and don’t have the concerns of so many worldwide including many of my colleagues now.
Will I ever be able to truly empathise with some of the toughest conditions faced by locals in Dharavi and the inspirational life stories of them and some of our local staff? Of course not. Whilst my salary and disposable income are a shadow of more recent years I still go home to a decent apartment in a nice suburb of Mumbai where air-conditioning and home delivery is readily available. I live with two others who are currently wanting to find a maid and cook for us, struggling to relate that to the scenes I see most days in Dharavi and the tough lives of many here in India. I still feel pangs of shame when talking of my lifestyle should they ask and try not to raise the subject, although that doesn’t stop me sending out for comfort food and drinking at expat bars from time to time. Even though on the whole when asked they are not doing so out of any sense of bitterness or jealousy, mostly curiosity.
So that means we’re a big sham and nothing we do is ever of real benefit right? I’d like to think of course that this is blatantly untrue. To fixate on these negative stereotypes of NGO style work is plain wrong and the perfect excuse for nobody to do anything. The license to never give to such causes, to not interfere as we may do more harm than good. From very early on meeting the team I realised the passion and energy of everyone involved. That the local staff genuinely cared about the company and were proud to work there and equally proud of the company’s achievements and principles. If they felt positive about us overall beyond simply providing employment then this was a good sign. Even more so when seeing direct feedback from the local community which, after initial reticence and uncertainty, slowly over the ten years the company has been going increasingly understood our intentions and respected our efforts. Albeit there is still a key requirement to remain engaged on an ongoing basis to ensure their continued support and integration. I have learnt that the few foreign staff like myself are all truly here from the heart having made similar choices to me and with a similar desire to mine of simply trying to help where we can based on our experiences or connections. We are not deluded, we are very aware of the issues involved and that they are on a scale we could never attempt to fully solve directly. We know at times we don’t do everything perfectly, nobody does. We simply took the choice of believing that we could make a slight beneficial difference overall by our support, no matter how big or small.
I have already seen the faces of children being given hearing aids. Heard first-hand the stories of how the projects have given a greater feeling of self-worth, improved confidence, social skills and opportunities to many of our program students. I have visited the kindergarten and junior school where we are training local teachers and seen the different standards and working practices in comparison to the often over-run government efforts. I am working with incredible local colleagues who in equal measure humble and inspire me every day. Many of whom have grasped opportunities themselves to become guides and office staff in key positions, several coming through the programs directly. Would they all have been better off if my predecessors had stayed at home minding their business?
Does this mean we are angelic? Of course not. I have to suppress frustration sometimes when Indians outside of Dharavi, other expats and tourists praise us for being “brave” enough to work in Dharavi and to have come over from our home countries to India. That in itself reveals the social stigma so prevalent here and global values of worth which so often relate success to possessions and bank balance. To me I am receiving nothing but an incredibly warm welcome from people very proud of their background and homes, if wishing for certain social and economic changes which would aid the development of them and their community further. I work in an incredibly interesting and challenging environment where no two days are ever the same. I would find certain other more outwardly comfortable existences distinctly sterile in comparison and the opportunity to live in and explore more of India is an incredible one.
A certain dose of scepticism is healthy, but if you’re not careful it’s simply an excuse for inaction, the turning of blind eyes and deaf ears. More actors than critics tends to bring a more creative environment. It is early days still but I for one am glad I made the switch.