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Battling Stereotypes, Hitting the Headlines & Making a Difference

In 2008, Slumdog Millionaire’s success put Mumbai’s slum community on the world stage. Millions around the world felt as if they really were a part of it, engrossed in the film, as they followed Jamal through the crowded streets of the city’s underworld.


Finally being on the world stage, in many ways, was one of the worst things that could have happened to the image of India’s slum residents. For the vast majority of viewers, the pickpockets, gangsters and helplessness depicted in Slumdog will be their permanent recollection whenever they hear that word ‘slum’. They will never visit India, and certainly not any of its underprivileged areas. “Dharavi? Where they blind the child beggars so they’ll earn more? I’ll pass, thank you very much.”

Plastic sits on rooftops waiting to be recycled.

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that slums are tough places to live. Dharavi, India’s largest and one of the world’s most notorious, faces a host of problems due to overcrowding – one million people inhabit just over 2 square kilometres, in a population twenty times as dense as the rest of the city.

 Scratch beneath the surface, though, and there’s another side to Dharavi. Amid the narrow alleys and open drains, a thriving ecosystem can be found, fuelled by an entrepreneurial backbone which sees the slum export over $660 million worth of goods every year.

Denied a head start in life because of where they were born, Dharavi’s residents are determined to break the cycle of poverty – and the existence of so many successful business owners, restaurateurs and tech start-ups reveals the community’s strong spirit of determination.

A local-led approach to quality education

Reality Tours & Travel, a socially responsible tour operator founded three years before Slumdog was released, has made it its mission to show people the true nature of India’s slums. Its signature Educational Slum Tour of Dharavi has revealed to visitors from more than 100 countries that there’s more to the area than Slumdog Millionaire’s misery.

The company’s focus on social and urban development issues is refreshing: 80% of profits fund a sister NGO, Reality Gives. Reality Gives has reached over 6,000 children, youth, and adults with their education programmes since 2009 in Dharavi and also Delhi’s Sanjay Colony slum since 2015. Using quality curricula developed through a blend of local and international expertise, their focus is on bringing quality standards from leading overseas institutes to India’s slum communities, all the while monitored closely by a Director of Education recruited from Harvard University.

On the face of it, there’s nothing remarkable about another educational NGO based in Dharavi; Reality Gives has many peers, which, some argue, reduces people’s ability to create their own change. This is the aspect where Reality Gives takes a unique approach. It hires and trains staff locally to deliver its programmes, with the vast majority of its teachers and operational staff coming from the communities they serve.

This local-led model has produced some remarkable stories of slum residents determined to create their own destiny in life. Karthika Nadar’s journey, which began when she joined Reality Gives’ Dharavi Girls Football Academy when she was 17, is one such example. Having grown up in Dharavi where she still lives with her family today, Karthika had reached a point in her life where she was happy but unable to choose the career she wanted. Employed as a compounder at a local pharmacy, she worked unsociable evening hours for a very modest salary. Her dream had always been to become a teacher and provide education to the community. Karthika took her first step towards this goal by joining the Academy. Quickly developing into a popular leader and seeking further preparation for her goal, she signed up to Reality Gives’ Youth Empowerment Program (a curriculum of English, Computer Classes, and Life Skills, which aims to help young adults tackle the world of employment). This proved to be a turning point for Karthika, who fulfilled her ambition by graduating from the programme and joining Reality Gives as an IT teacher. From the Community Centre where she once studied and now teaches in, she describes the programme as “the chance I needed to develop my English and begin my career. More than just learning, I began to feel strong.”

As Reality Gives continues to grow, its focus will remain on empowering slum residents. Together with Reality Tours & Travel, the two organisations are determined to redefine what the word “slum” means to the rest of the world. Rather than giving handouts to Dharavi, Sanjay Colony, and other underprivileged areas, they want to put educated, empowered residents on the world stage so that they themselves can challenge the stereotypes.

This article was originally published in The Logical Indian

A Practical Packing List for Your Trip to India

Hello travellers,

We’ve curated a shortlist of things that may not necessarily be on the top of your list of things to have on hand while travelling. We are certain that these items shall prove useful—whether you’re in accessible or remote areas, travelling in a group or solo, irrespective of your situation.

Charcoal tablets:
We swear by these pills that have, many a time, been life-savers for inopportune/ unfortunate stomach bugs caught on the road. Just take one or two and within a few hours, you’ll be feeling just fine. The charcoal binds to toxins and pathogens so that they get flushed out of your system quickly. They are also affordable and widely available.

Mosquito repellent:
These buggers are everywhere, whether you’re travelling during monsoon season or dry season, up in the hills or in the bustle of cities. Ensure to apply repellent generously, to prevent yourself from catching Dengue fever or from scratching yourself silly. From our experience, the strong kind (not the natural oil-based repellents aka citronella oil) work the best.

Hand sanitizer:
Sometimes you’re in a hurry, sometimes you’re somewhere without full toilet facilities. Especially if you’re eating with your hands, it’s essential to carry some form of hand sanitizer. Maintaining hygiene shouldn’t fall on the back-burner while you’re travelling.

Toilet paper:
If you’re planning on taking public transport, long bus rides, train rides etc, carrying a roll of toilet paper will enhance your sense of comfort. You’ll be hard-pressed to find toilet paper in public washrooms; if you don’t fancy using a bucket of water to cleanse yourself, then just do it! (Wet wipes are also a practical option.)

Appropriate attire:
This may seem like a no-brainer but we’re giving you a gentle reminder about dress code in India. India is home to temples, mosques and religious sites galore. Hence, we recommend travellers to err on the side of caution and dress modestly, to ensure you can visit places without hassle. Ensure to bring scarves, shawls, long sleeved tops, and long pants to cover up when needed (also to fend off mosquitos!)

We know this is not the most enticing of packing lists, however, it is a valuable checklist for those “you-never-know” or “did-not-think-this-would-happen” moments. So without further adieu, happy packing!

Balaji’s Story: Living & Working In Dharavi Slum

My name is Balaji and I am 27 years old. I live in Dharavi and have worked as a tour guide at Reality Tours and Travel for over 5 years now.  As a local from the slum, I have a lot to say about my neighbourhood –  the way it has changed with time and the changes that have happened to me in this time too by learning new skills in my job.  

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Manoj’s Story: Making a Dream a Reality

My name is Manoj Ramesh Medwal and I was born and brought up in Mumbai. My parents both come from Delhi and I have one elder brother and one younger one. We live together with my mum. My elder brother is married and has two wonderful children. I’m really proud to be a nice uncle. We live in Mahalaxmi, an area in the South of Mumbai, not too far from Dhobi Ghat, the famous open-air laundry place of the city. This is my story… (more…)

Taking Tours & Challenging Conventions, All In A Day’s Work

My name is Shehnaz and I am working as a tour guide at Reality Tours and Travel. My family is originally from Bihar but my father moved to Delhi about 25 years ago to work and sustain the family. I was born in Delhi in a middle-class family and we are six siblings. My father is a tailor but I would like to call him an artist and, of course, my superhero…

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What Would The Neighbours Say? A Study Into Community Perceptions Of Slum Tours In Dharavi

Slum tourism has become extremely popular in the 21st century, especially in Mumbai. With its escalating use, throughout media and existing scholarship slum tourism has generated a heated and critical debate especially concerning ethics and its so-called ‘voyeuristic’ nature. However, scholarly research on slum tourism remains limited and fragmented.

Reality Tours & Travel began, first and foremost, to serve the Dharavi Community. To bring people here to challenge the negative stereotypes they held about ‘slums’ and sensitise them to the multilayered, multifaceted cultures, communities and lives being played out in ‘Asia’s largest slum’. To turn the profits we made from taking these tours into tangible, positive change through our sister-NGO, Reality Gives. (more…)

What The Dabbawallahs Of Mumbai Can Teach The World About Sustainable Business

Freshly cooked dalokra, rice and roti are packed safely into a metal tiffin when the doorbell rings. A white capped dabbawallah is anxiously waiting for the lunchbox but he is sure to flash a smile before he speeds away on his bicycle.  At the local train station, he adds six more lunch boxes to a wooden plank that is hoisted onto his colleague’s head. It weighs 65 kilograms (143 pounds). Fighting the remainder of rush hour commuter traffic, the second dabbawallah steps into the luggage compartment of a Mumbai local, sets his cargo on the ground with the help of two colleagues and chats idly as the train pulls out of the station.
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Five TED Talks We Love, And Why We Love Them

Since 1984 ‘Technology, Entertainment, Design’ (more commonly known the world over as ‘TED’) have been sharing ‘ideas worth spreading’ relating to all things, from education to business, science to development. In the last 30 years, they’ve shared over 2,400 talks in more than 100 languages which have been viewed 500 million times.

These talks are a regular source of ideas, information and inspiration here in the Reality Group office – here are a few we love, and why we love them. (more…)

Ganesh & The Story Behind Maharashtra’s Favourite Festival

India is a very diverse country and every city has its own rich history and culture. A particularly striking aspect of this is the range of different festivals celebrated throughout the country.

One of the biggest festivals celebrated around this time of the year in Mumbai is “Ganesh Chaturti”. Ganesha is the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. He is one of the most famous Hindu Gods and easily identified by his elephant head. He is known as the God of Wisdom and Intellect, but also as “Ek Dant”- one tooth – and “Vighnaharta”- vanquisher of obstacles. (more…)

India At The Olympics – A Sporting Chance?

In a loose replication of Portuguese adventurers centuries ago, over the last couple of weeks thousands of the world’s top athletes have been seeking precious metals in Brazil. However one country in particular is slightly conspicuous by its absence from the upper echelons of that ultimate game of temporary national one-upmanship, the Olympics medal table.

India collected their best ever medal haul of 6 at the last games in London and were hoping to improve upon that momentum this time round having brought their largest ever team. It was hoped the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi might also kick-start a new generation inspired to improve their fitness and participation levels by seeing many of the world’s top athletes and comparatively unknown sports up close. Yet with the Olympics now over it appears India have headed backwards once more, having claimed a couple of medals only and no gold in Rio 2016. (more…)

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