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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

Exploring Maharashtra with Reality Tours

Hello readers,

Just before summer heat kicked in here in Mumbai, we were busy creating a new experience for you. After a few enquiries and subsequent research, we found out that magnificent ancient cave temples existed not too far from Mumbai. And so, we hopped on a train to Aurangabad to see the sights and stories waiting to be discovered.

Early on a Saturday afternoon, we convened at Dadar Train Station for the Janshatabdi Express train to Aurangabad. We sank into our comfortable seats and armed ourselves with snacks, water, music, and books for the 6 hour train journey. The lull of “chai-chai-chai- kopi-kopi-kopi” came through the aisles as we slept and intermittently woke up to enjoy the scenery.

We arrived at night and were eager to settle into our beds at Zostel. Upon arrival at the hostel, conveniently located close to the train station, we were delighted by not only the design and but also the cleanliness of it. Zostel is the oldest and largest chain of hostels all around India. If you’re looking for a reasonable price for a clean bed and shower, (and to meet like-minded people) Zostel is a good and trusted option.

We quickly got ready for bed as we had an early start the next morning to begin our Maharashtra Trail adventure.

Day one: Ajanta Caves

To fuel our 3.5 hour road trip from Aurangabad to the caves, we stopped by a dhaba (roadside restaurant) for breakfast. Our energy levels shot up after we filled ourselves with poha (flattened rice) and jaggery-sweetened chai. Then we hopped back into our car for a bumpy ride towards Ajanta.

When we arrived, the sun was shining brilliantly above us and we hopped on a tourist bus to get into the complex.

A short ride and a few steps later, we were greeted by a spectacular sweeping view of Ajanta caves. It inspired jaw-dropping, “ooo-ing” and “ahhh-ing” all around us. What stood before us was a vast gorge encircled caves housing Buddhist Art dating back to 2nd century BC. In fact, the Ajanta is far older than its  Ellora Caves.

I’m almost certain we took 15,000 steps or more that day, walking in and out of each cave, up and down the Ajanta Cave complex. We took in the ancient art remaining in the caves and learned about the symbolism in the artwork and sculptures. What a memorable experience! (Tip: ensure you bring plenty of water, as there are no shops in your immediate surroundings)

Day 2:  Ellora Complex, Devgiri Fort, and Bibi Ka Maqbara

First thing in the morning, we hopped into a rickshaw to get us to Ellora Caves. Feeling the crisp morning breeze as our rickshaw cruised through the city roads and outskirts was a treat. Our ride was smooth and before we knew it, we arrived and walked into a whole other world.

Ellora Complex was nothing short of astounding: a fascinating mix of 34 structures from Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. We were filled rapture and wonder staring at some of world’s largest monolithic structures. The detailed structures have been chipped and carved over the course of 500 years. The sheer scale and diversity of the complex reflected how various religions had lived in harmony in India’s past.

After exploring an array of remarkably intricate rock-cut caves, temples, and chapels, we took a break and enjoyed a hearty meal. The Ellora Complex could have easily taken a full day of exploration. However, we had a few more stops to make in Aurangabad to ensure we made the most of our time.

To burn off some calories from our lunch, we paid a visit to Devgiri Fort–a glorious 16th century fort overlooking the city. In the spur of a moment, we decided to take an hour to hike up to the top; though we panted and heaved all along the way, the journey was well worth it. At the end, we were rewarded with a stunning view of Auranagabad. The hike up and around its ruins was a sweaty and fun activity. It was the highlight of our day, as we bonded over the burn in our legs and feeling of accomplishment.

Our last stop on our tour around Aurangabad was the famous Baby Taj–also known as BiBi Ka Maqbara. Wandering into the tomb was surreal; we felt like we were in Agra entering the renowned Taj Mahal complex.  The structure was indeed a replica of the Taj! We learned about the details of its creation along with some stories associated with it. (And we posed for a few photos and selfies while we were at it, of course!)

Needless to say, after hours of walking through historic monuments, taking in ancient religious art, and clicking photos galore, we called it a wrap.

Our recce to Aurangabad was what led to the creation of our Maharashtra Trail. We experienced first-hand all the sites, the food, the history of Aurangabad–one of Maharashtra’s best kept secrets. Here we have put together the best itinerary and plan for a weekend trip from Mumbai: perfect for anyone looking for an interesting and action-packed weekend getaway!

Keep your eyes peeled for another blog post about our travels to come.

Much love,

AK

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…)

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…)

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…)

What I Learned From Two Years in Dharavi: Reflections From Our Former Marketing Director, Nick

For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working in Dharavi: the heart of Mumbai, its center of small scale enterprise, and “one of the largest ‘slums’ in Asia”. Dharavi is an incredibly unique area that outsiders rarely get the opportunity to work in and learn from for such an extended period of time. It is an organically built neighborhood comprised of over 80 different communities that was born out of necessity and now houses up to one million people (who speak over 30 languages and follow six religions) and 15,000 small scale industries. (more…)

How Dharavi Makes A Difference: Eight Surprising Facts About Mumbai’s Largest Slum

Your average Mumbaikar might wonder why Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, has survived, slap bang in the middle of India’s burgeoning financial capital, for so long. As the city has grown and expanded, Dharavi has come to occupy a prime piece of real estate. Why not bulldoze it down and start again?

What people across Mumbai might not know is the way that the slum is influencing their lives; how the million people and over ten thousand businesses Dharavi is home to are a vital part of the Maximum City, rather than a blight upon it. (more…)

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